Nuke skirmish: Texas lobbyists, radwaste dumps, airliner terrorists

Greg Harman

[email protected]

First there was a call for a federal investigation into Waste Control Specialists' growing nuke waste dump in West Texas. The August 11 press release issued by the reliably anti-nuclear Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and SEED Coalition urged the EPA (or possibly the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to take over the job of regulating Texas' nuke trash storage and disposal from an inept Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the same way it had some of the state's air-permitting activities.

In the release, Texas Public Citizen Director Tom “Smitty” Smith pointed out that the TCEQ Commissioners overruled their staff's recommendation of license denial before then TCEQ Executive Director Glenn Shankle resigned to go work as a lobbyist for the dump. “How can we rely on a decision made by someone who goes to work for the regulated company six months later?” Smith asked. “Could his decision have anything to do with the fact that he may have been angling for a job with WCS?”

Texas state Representative Lon Burnam warned that state taxpayers could get hooked with the ultimate cleanup costs from the operation, which may sit atop the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's largest freshwater aquifer.

The grito was a success. SEED Director Karen Hadden said the coalition's release ran in papers as far away as India, which may have contributed to the tone of WCS's PR response of the following day.

Hadden had only recently settled with the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to appoint a treasurer for the No Bonds for Billionaires PAC, an Austin-based outfit used to oppose WCS' effort to secure a bond from Andrews County voters. The Ethics Commission listed 15 “findings of fact” (PDF) supporting the allegation, and Hadden settled for $1,000.

Not only did WCS celebrate Hadden's "outing" as a key anti-nuclear conspirator behind the No Bonds for Billionaires website, they took the opportunity to do some smearing of their own. Hadden, the WCS release states, is an “extremist” supporting a variety of "liberal causes." Of those suspect allegiances, the only one listed was Peace Action for Texas, through which Hadden has “actively protested against U.S. troops in Iraq.”

Karen chides the company for trying to turn a debate about public safety into something else. “It was appalling that they would respond to serious concerns about safety of the site with launching a tired and worn personal attack,” she said. “Obviously they're very worried.”

And there are reasons for concern on the nuke front. In recent weeks, both WCS and an effort to expand the South Texas (nuclear) Project in South Texas have been cited by federal and state regulators.

In Matagorda County, NRC investigators alleged in an August 13 letter that the nuke plant operators had failed to accurately characterize the ability of the proposed Units 3 & 4 to withstand an attack by an aircraft. The Current reported last year about past federal studies that attempted to quantify the loss of life such an attack could mean (See “Risky Business,” September 30, 2009). The federal Notice of Violation states the company “did not use realistic analyses” for elements of it's Aircraft Impact Assessment and “did not fully identify and incorporate into the design those design features and functional capabilities credited.” The company was given 30 days to respond.

Meanwhile, WCS was cited by the TCEQ for storing some of the most radioactive waste allowable under its permit conditions for more than 365 days. The violation followed the discovery of inch-wide cracks in the asphalt pad on which the radioactive waste is stored.

Austin-based attorney Marisa Perales is handling a Sierra Club legal challenge to the TCEQ Commissioners' denial of the group's request for an evidentiary hearing on the license approval. She said the first part of the appeal has been pending for more than a year with 261st District Judge Lora Livingston. But there is no injunction that would wastes from being disposed in the meantime, Perales said.

Earlier this year, the commission overseeing the disposal of Texas and Vermont civilian-generated wastes, a curious bi-state arrangement that grew out of federal efforts in the 1990s to make states to take responsibility for their stockpiling radioactive waste streams, attempted to develop rules that would guide the disposal of wastes from outside the two states, potentially leading to a de-facto national dump for so-called low-level wastes. However, intense public and political pressure forced the commission to hit the pause button.

And while state newspapers have recently taken to running stories about how much money Perry's appointed regents have funneled to his campaign coffers, few have chosen to dig into the TCEQ dump approval in spite of more than $600,000 kicked to Perry over the past decade by WCS owner and Dallas billionaire (and certified "Evil Genius") Harold Simmons.

So, can expect the EPA to intervene? In a prepared release, a spokesperson for the regional EPA office wrote:

The Agency takes allegations of illegal and improper conduct in the licensing and supervising of the Waste Control Specialist's storage and disposal facilities in Andrews County, Texas, seriously and will, after a thorough review of this request for an investigation, decide what next steps are appropriate.

Sounds like a "could be" to me.

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