Complete coverage of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature.

Bill Could Narrow Challenges to Radioactive Waste Site

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    The Texas Senate is preparing to vote on a bill that seeks to narrow the number of possible challenges -- and challengers -- to operations at a West Texas radioactive waste dump.

    The bill from Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, could be voted on as early as Wednesday. A similar bill has been filed in the House.

    Seliger's bill includes a provision that would bar challenges to the operations from anyone outside the state, which would apply to many people living closest to the dump site but across the state line in New Mexico.

    It also would limit or end public hearings and comment periods for a variety of changes to the company's license.

    A call seeking comment from Seliger was not immediately returned Tuesday.

    Residents of Eunice, N.M., live less than 10 miles from Dallas-based Waste Control Specialist's 1,300-acre radioactive waste burial ground. But Seliger's bill effectively would deny them standing in the Texas regulatory process, allowing challenges only from Texas residents in Andrews County, home to the dump site, and any adjacent Texas county.

    Eunice native Rose Gardner has long objected to the dump, fearing leaks will lead to groundwater contamination.

    "There isn't a Texan living near the state line," the 54-year-old flower shop owner said. "They live 37 miles away in Andrews. And we're sitting here like little kids playing tiddlywinks."

    Company spokesman Chuck McDonald said that part of the bill might not remain.

    "I think it's really a moot point based on the exchange I heard in committee," McDonald said.

    The nuclear waste dump site, whose majority owner is billionaire and GOP mega-donor Harold Simmons, accepted its first low-level radioactive waste about a year ago, ending an expensive and yearslong effort by the company to bury materials from medical, research and industrial activities and from nuclear power plants. Also buried there are PCB-tainted sludge dredged from the Hudson River in New York and tons of Cold War-era radioactive waste from a former uranium-processing plant in Ohio.

    Environmental groups have opposed the company's pressing for various types of waste to bury in the remote scrub brush terrain about 375 miles west of Dallas.

    "It's just always something more, and I have to wonder where this will end," said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Texas SEED Coalition.

    Originally the site was to handle low-level waste from a couple states but last legislative session lawmakers approved allowing waste from more than three dozen states to be buried at the facility.

    Seliger's bill also seeks to promote sending low-level waste, known as Class A, out of Texas for burial and ups the annual curie limit for the next two years from 220,000 to 300,000, so that states outside the compact wanting to dispose of hotter waste, known as Class B and C, can.

    The company, Andrews County and the state stand to make more money from the hotter waste. The county receives 5 percent and the state 25 percent of the company's revenues quarterly.

    Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said lawmakers should play an active role in regulating any plans by the company to expand the site's capacity and any change in its license, including the forms, types or streams of waste.

    "The Legislature should impose limits on volume and radioactivity in that site," he said. "If those need to be changed later on those limits should be changed through the legislative process."

    The bill includes prohibiting public comment or hearings on minor amendments to the license, which is regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The bill defines minor as "a change in the type, volume or concentration limits of wastes to be received to the extent the change does not increase the total volume and curie capacities approved" in the existing license.

    McDonald said the license is valid and operations are underway, making the commission the agency to handle regulation.

    "They should be the ones to determine if the waste stream meets the waste acceptance criteria," he said. "It's taking place safely and securely, and TCEQ needs the ability to manage it."

    That's not the view of Marisa Perales, an attorney representing the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in a contested case hearing that a judge last year ruled should have occurred. Waste Control is appealing that ruling. 

    "It seems to me that what's occurring is that TCEQ, WCS, the Legislature are trying more and more to keep the public out of the process," she said.