NUCLEAR WASTE SITE SPARKS DEBATE
By Bob Campbell
Depending on your viewpoint, the radioactive-waste repository planned about 30 miles west of Andrews off Highway 176 is either a harmless economic boon for an oil-dependent county or an environmental hazard and political boondoggle.
Andrews political leaders and some citizens, the state legislators who sponsored the enabling House Bill 1567 and Senate Bill 824 and representatives of the waste company say the site isn't over the Ogallala water aquifer and therefore poses no threat to the environment.
The Sierra Club in Austin, one of the plan's most determined opponents in the eight years the project has been pending, says all nuclear waste dumps leak, and this one is close enough to the aquifer to pollute it.
A Sierra Club spokeswoman explained that the club doesn't believe the proponents' claim about the repository's lack of proximity to the aquifer.
Tom Jones, general manager of Waste Control Specialists, which operates the facility, said the 16,000-acre site near the New Mexico border has 30 feet of caliche over a hard formation of 800 feet of red clay that would keep any leakage from seeping into the water table.
"The Ogallala doesn't extend this far down or over this far," he said. "We're at the tail end of the aquifer where fingers of it dip down."
With a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Control is already operating a low-level radioactive waste repository, having stored 250,000 cubic yards of material from the U.S. Department of Energy. It employs 72 people, many from Andrews.
With legislation sponsored by Rep. Buddy West, R-Odessa, and Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, instructing the Texas Department of Health to accept permit applications, the company plans to dig an initial concrete-lined hole 1,500 feet square and 75 feet deep, Jones said.
The state health department is the official designated licensing agency with operations to be supervised by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, formerly the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission.
The pit will accommodate 6 million cubic yards of waste. Only 600,000 cubic yards of waste will have high levels of radioactivity. The waste will come from the Department of Energy and the interstate Waste Compact to store commercial waste from Texas, Vermont and Maine. If there are no problems after five years, the company would be eligible to apply to dig another pit.
No applications may be submitted until June next year.
Jones said fears that such facilities "always leak" go back to the 1940s and '50s, when they often did.
"They'd bury chemicals and gasoline in steel tanks underground, and it wasn't until the early '80s when they realized that 25 percent of those tanks leaked," he said.
The current repository is run like a landfill with waste materials going down on a thick sheet of polyethylene plastic and then being covered with another sheet. The big new repository, expected to be operational by 2005, will be lined with reinforced concrete and then covered with it.
Waste Control plans to seek a 15-year license, and the Sierra Club is fearful it will harm the environment, make $100 billion for company owner Harold Simmons of Dallas and then be left to deteriorate.
Jones disputed that profit projection, saying "lucrative is not the right word because the state will set our rates. We do expect a reasonable return on our investment, and we're banking on its being a worthwhile business to be in."
Sierra Club Grassroots Coordinator Erin Rogers, of Austin, said politics have been a major determinant in the plan's reaching this advanced stage.
She said West and Bivins pushed hard for an expansion of the limit on higher grade "B" and "C" grade radioactive materials from 5,000 cubic yards to 600,000 a change Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock opposed but couldn't stop when the compromise measure was being decided.
"Finally getting it through was a culmination of the change in political leadership in the Legislature and massive campaign contributions from Simmons and Kent Hance," said Rogers, referring to the former Lubbock congressman and Austin lobbyist.
She said Simmons and his lobbyists have donated $500,000 to leaders like West and Bivins since 1997, including $360,000 to Gov. Rick Perry.
"Bivins directly threatened other senators, as chair of the finance committee, to cut off funding for projects in their districts unless they voted for this bill," she said. "We also know that Hance threatened to find and finance candidates to run against some of the senators who might vote against the bill."
Bivins said Friday that "there is absolutely no truth to the allegations by Ms. Rogers."
Hance said Rogers "is an extremist" and the Sierra Club "never wants the science to be involved because if the scientific facts are utilized, they lose.
"I'm not going to help people who disagree with me philosophically," Hance said. "I'm not going to help liberal Democrats, and I wouldn't expect Erin Rogers to help conservatives or moderates. The unfortunate thing about this whole debate is that she and her followers have never told the truth. They're just sore losers."
Rogers said she's concerned about the eventual effect of Waste Control's profit motive.
"The cheaper they can dispose of it, the more profit they will make," she said. "We're worried they will forsake safety for profit."