RADIOACTIVE WASTE BUSINESS KICKS UP DUST IN WEST TEXAS
A PRIVATE COMPANY'S PROPOSED LOW-LEVEL RADIOACTIVE WASTE STORAGE SITE HAS RENEWED THE DEBATE IN WEST TEXAS ABOUT TEXAS ABOUT THE STATE'S ROLE IN SUCH BUSINESS, AND COUNTY OFFICIALS IN THE REGION HAVE MISED OPINIONS ABOUT HOW IT WILL AFFECT THEM.
by Graham Baker, COUNTY magazine, March/April 2000
Envirocare of Texas plans to build in Ward County several above-ground concrete bunkers that would store the radioactive waste generated by hospitals, universities, nuclear power plants, and industries in Texas, Maine and Vermont as part of a disposal compact approved by the states and Congress in 1997. The host county stands to earn a $5 million cash payment for community projects and Envirocare has promised five percent of its gross revenue to the county. While the company has begun the lengthy application process through the state, opponents have begun to organize to run them out of town.
Reeves County, just west across the Pecos River, has passed a resolution denouncing the company's planned facility, which is closer to the Ward County courthouse in Monahans. Reeves County Judge Jimmy Galindo, who speaks regularly to the local media and at protest meetings over the site, has challenged Ward County to do the same. In both county seats, the city councils have passed resolutions against it.
But the Ward County commissioners court has declined because they have no authority to enforce such an opinion.
"A resolution and 80 cents will get you a cup of coffee at the Colonial," Ward County Commissioner Rick McCurdy said.
"That's not true," Galindo countered. "It's an official action. As a neighboring county, we're an affected party, and we're trying to keep a private vendor from slipping in here and leaving an irreversible mark on this part of the state. They should store that stuff where they made it," he said.
Ward County Judge Sam Massey would prefer to have the issued decided by a popular referendum. He said the calls to his office have run about fifty-fifty for and against it. Half the callers need a job because they are unemployed or they think their jobs with the oil companies are unstable. The other half fear groundwater contamination and devalued property.
"We live with a corporation out here that could kill us all just with an accidental release of some of the stuff they've got out here, and people aren't trying to run Chevron out of town. Almost everyone's comfortable with the oil and gas business. It's a matter of perception, I guess," Massey said.
The public perception of radioactive waste has prevented states from licensing a low-level radioactive waste facility for the last 20 years. When the governors of Washington, Nevada, and South Carolina all shut down their radioactive disposal sites in 1979 and announced that they would no longer be the nation's dumpsites, Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act and subsequent amendments to encourage states to agree among themselves to control and contain their own wastes. Since then, companies and states has spent $600 million on land and license applications, but no site has opened in the country. Sierra Blanca would have the site for Texas-Maine-Vermont compact, but the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission declined last year to license that facility.
That's when Envirocare of Texas General Manager Rick Jacobi, back then in charge of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, decided to try the private sector approach to win a license.
"When Sierra Blanca didn't work out, I decided to move (to Envirocare) to continue in my quest to solve this problem. What do we do with radioactive waste? Well, (the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission) certainly didn't like the idea of burying it out there, but storing it above-ground -what we call assured isolation - has acceptance all over the world. So I think assured isolation is the answer," Jacobi said.
Envirocare has applied for a license to store the waste for up to 500 years in an above-ground facility made of steel and concrete that is designed to withstand the force of a tornado. Thus the waste disposal industry has tried to reposition itself as the "waste management" industry and adopted the term "assured isolation."
"The beauty of assured isolation is that if some new method of treatment comes along in 50 years, then the materials could be easily retrieved," Jacobi said.
It will likely fall to the Legislature next session and the Texas Department of Health's Bureau of Radiation Control to determine whether the proposed site and assured isolation meet the compact's requirements regarding disposal and management, and whether a private company can even be licensed to handle radioactive waste.
House Environment Regulation Committee Chairman Warren Chisum likes the assured isolation concept, but he's opposed to licensing a private company to manage a waste material that could be a danger for thousands of years, he said. Chisum sponsored HB1910 in the 76th Legislature that would have made the state the licensee, and therefore the responsible party. The state could then contract out to a private company, he said.
The bill also would have provided the host county with a non-binding referendum that a licensing agency like TDH could take into consideration. Chisum called it taking the high road in a low-level (radiation) dispute. But he killed his own bill about both the Senate and one of his colleagues in the House amended the bill in favor of licensing a private company.
"That's a horrible idea. That stuff is dangerous for thousands of years. Who is going to be responsible for it for centuries on end? The state has an ethical obligation to retain control over this," Chisum said.
Under federal law, the Department of Energy could send millions of cubic feet of materials contaminated from making nuclear weapons to a company with a state license. It would be against federal law for Texas to bar a private company from entering into contracts with private or public organizations. But if the state retained the license, it could deny DOE access to the site.
As Chisum has said, the compact site will be a windfall for the county because the shipping states must pay the host county. But the DOE pays only the waste company, and thus acres and acres of land are filled with radioactive debris and potential exposure for which the county is not compensated. But such volume could mean more jobs.
In Andrews County, where Envirocare rival Waste Control Specials, Inc., operates a non-radioactive hazardous material site on the New Mexico border, County Judge Gary Gaston said his community has welcomed the industry.
"Big companies are circling this area like buzzards waiting to see what the legislature is going to do about licensing, and we're in a favorable position. Our citizens know what it's like to live around hazardous industry. They know how keenly the economy and their own taxes are tied to the oil industry," Gaston said.
The compact designation's five million-dollar downpayment and promise of high-wage jobs similar to the better oil field pay scales would help his constituents. Currently, he said, Andrews County perennially one of the state's top oil-producing counties, is wallowing in cheap oil and skinny beef prices. Andrews County has gone so far as to lobby the legislature on behalf of WCS for a license to accept radioactive waste. Re. Gary Walker, who represents Andrews County, was the author of an amendment to Chisum's bill that would have licensed a private company.
Only one site is going to be licensed to meet the compact requirements, and so only one county is going to reap the millions of dollars promised. Andrews County has had a glimpse of the glowing lucre. Last year, they received more than $180,000 in royalties paid on non-radioactive hazardous waste shipments.
"These are the kinds of projects that can get you beat fast," Gaston said. "You want to be satisfied that the project is something you are willing to endorse,' he said.
"State Sen. Robert Duncan sponsored a bill in response to Chisum's effort last session that would have designated Andrews County as the compact site, but it, too, failed in the dispute over who ought to hold the license. That, of course, would have lifted the burden away from Ward and Reeves counties.
In a letter to Envirocare, Judge Massey asked the company to pay for a referendum to settle the matter and quite possibly end what may be a protracted fight within the county. The company agreed to support a non-binding referendum, but Jacobi said that it would be a conflict of interest to pay for it. He also declined to support a binding referendum.
Massey said he would pursue the referendum with Chairman Chisum's interim committee this year and with the Legislature in 2001.
"What I've been telling everyone in the grocery store and the coffee shop is that we're going to lobby the legislature for the right to vote on it. I tell them that I believe my responsibility is to lobby the legislature to give the citizens of Ward County a binding vote to determine what can locate here. If all we do is shoot our mouths off about a resolution, we alienate the company that may come anyway and be less inclined to be a good corporate citizen," Massey said.
Envirocare could always go up the road. That wouldn't entirely make Massey unhappy, either.
"You know, if I had to vote on it today, personally, I'd want Envirocare to leave," Massey said. "They came here talking about 150 jobs, and we're down to 30. They said they wanted to accept compact waste like gloves and boots and glassware, but now they're talking about DOE stuff that's supposedly worse. They started off on assured isolation, but they've said they'd bury it if that were what the state allowed. They've just misrepresented their intentions and I'm uncomfortable with that," he said.
Envirocare, or some other company, will be in all likelihood open for business somewhere in Texas. For every opponent like Reeves County or every ambivalent county like Ward, there's an Andrews County lobbying for them or an envious, cash-poor community like Loving County showing a little leg.
"We've got nothing but land, and most workers here in the oilfields commute from Pecos or Kermit, so we've got workforce. Loving County could use Envirocare," County Judge Don Creager said.
Oil companies pay more than 90 percent of the tax revenue into the county and as drilling has slowed and companies pulled out, the tax base has dwindled and fluctuated so wildly that it is difficult to budget year-to-year. A steady income would be a luxury to Loving County, Creager said. The facility will require approximately 65 construction jobs over one year and then 31 full-time employees to begin operations.
"Some people think it's horrible, but I imagine the oil companies would like some tax relief and we certainly need the help. When you're drowning, you don't ask who's throwing the rope to you," Creager said.
County" magazine, March/April 2000, p. 14-18
WCS Admits Contracting with Utah Rad Watch founder to Undermine Envirocare of Utah
"In late July, 1996, I instructed representatives of WCS to met [sic] with Mr. Steve Romano to assist WCS' legal counsel in preparing for litigation against Envirocare and its representatives... I expressly told Mr. Romano, and he agreed, that his services were to be performed under strictest confidence and that his efforts were to be utilized by WCS' attorneys to prepare for the lawsuit, and once filed to prosecute the lawsuit," stated Ken Bigham, President of WCS, in his affidavit, March 2, 1998.
Any lingering doubts about the objectivity of the "newsletter" Utah Rad Watch were laid to rest March 2, 1998, by Waste Control Specialists' motion and affidavit to block Envirocare's motion to depose Stephen Romano in WCS's lawsuit against Envirocare.
"All of our concerns about Utah Rad Watch's motivations and connections of its publishers to our competitors have now been confirmed by Waste Control Specialists," responded Charles Judd, President of Envirocare.
Utah Rad Watch, founded in early 1997 by Steve Romano and Mark Gibson, claimed it would offer "independent and objective" views on developments in Utah's radioactive waste disposal industry. It, however, targeted Envirocare and was mailed unsolicited to Utah regulators, Utah Radiation Control Board members, and others in Utah and around the nation.
The WCS-Romano relationship apparently was formed prior to Utah Rad Watch's incorporation. Steve Romano was a former employee and then a consultant for US Ecology, the operator of a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Washington, and co-publisher Mark Gibson frequently represented Dawn Mining, another radioactive waste disposal company, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, 1997.
Utah Rad Watch, failing to gain broad readership, was acquired in January, 1998, in a puzzling move by King Publications, which publishes Energy Daily and other newsletters that report on the radioactive waste disposal industry