Big Problems Surround A Low-Level Nuclear Waste Dump In West Texas

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Last week, a low-grade firestorm erupted in the Texas Capitol over a radioactive waste dump in Andrews, Texas just north of Midland, and just east of the New Mexico state line.

The dump in question is complete, and pending approval by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), set to receive “low-level” nuclear waste(LLW) from 36 states around the country.  LLW is a somewhat misleading term because, in the US, low-level waste is considered anything that is not tailings from uranium mines, spent nuclear fuel, transuranic waste (elements with an atomic weight higher than 238 which emit alpha particles), or high-level waste (the highly radioactive, hot waste generated in a reactor’s core).  LLW, therefore, can be anything from lab coats, to x-ray machines, to the rubble of reactor buildings.  Tons of this waste will be brought to Andrews by trucks crossing major highways throughout the state as soon as next month.

State Rep. Lou Durnam (D-Ft Worth) held a press conference and sent letters to AG Greg Abbott, and the TCEQ urging them to release confidential documents pertaining to the dump, and to hold off approval of the Andrews site “until key questions are answered about the presence of groundwater inside the 100 feet buffer Zone around the facility.”

The private company licensed to operate the facility, Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which stands to reap millions in profits in disposal fees once the site is operational, is pressing for the  agency to allow the site to open even though documents show significant groundwater present at the site, confirming the worst fears of TCEQ scientists that objected to issuance of the license five years ago due to the likelihood of groundwater intrusion at the site in future years.

It appears that serious public health and safety risks are being ignored in the interest of getting this site up and running,” Burnam said in a press conference at the State Capitol, adding, “Until we know the source of this water, the likelihood of groundwater contamination, and the risk to the public, it’s simply irresponsible to open this site.”

The groundwater contamination Burnam speaks of stems from TCEQ studies of the site which show significant water levels remaining in wells drilled from the site into the vast Ogallala Aquifer.  The Ogallala is one of the largest aquifers on the planet and provides 30% of all water used for irrigation in the United States.  Even with round the clock pumping, the TCEQ expects these wells to remain wet for at least 18 months.  As the aftermath of the Japanese Fukushima disaster has shown, the radioactive contamination of food supplies is a huge problem with long term effects on agriculture and consumer confidence.

The TCEQ’s rules are clear regarding potential groundwater contamination: “In the event that saturated conditions are detected inside the buffer zone, the Licensee shall cease all waste disposal operations and notify the executive director immediately.” According to Burnam, “WCS would be in violation of its license on its first day of operation.”

While the dump itself is highly objectionable, the man behind WCS, Harold Simmons (the second most active political donor in the country according to open secrets) would be one of the more polarizing figures in the country, if he were better known.   Simmons has been fined several times by the FEC for exceeding legal donation limits.  He was a primary contributor to the legal defense funds for Oliver North and John Poindexter during the Iran-Contra Affair.  He donated $4 million to the “Swift Vets And POWS For Truth PAC” which derailed John Kerry’s presidential bid.  So far, he has contributed over $13.7 million to Republican SuperPACs during the 2012 election cycle.  His own daughters sued him in 1997 for making political contributions in their names out of a trust in their names of which he was the sole trustee.  D Magazine has called him “Dallas’ most evil genius.”

Burnam is pessimistic about the chances of halting this dump noting that “the attorney general has received over a half million dollars from … billionaire Harold Simmons in the last five years,” but believes “The public has a right to know what the scientists  whose salaries are paid by their tax dollars thought about the adequacy of the site, the possibility of groundwater contamination, and the risks to their safety.”

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