Getting dumped

Despite shoddy science, bad economics, and catastrophic health risks, a West Texas border community may become the nation's nuclear dumping ground

If Bush were relying on the dump's proponents for his information, his comment might be understandable. Rick Jacobi, the general manager of the authority, told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee that the hazardous life of these wastes varied from "as short as five years" to mere "decades."

Jacobi also maintains that the Sierra Blanca site is "perfectly suited" to waste disposal because of its "dry, stable geological formation where groundwater is over 700 feet below the surface" and the fact that it has "minimal rainfall and low storm intensity."

But, as testimony during the public hearing revealed, the authority doesn't know all that much about the geology of the site, possibly because its staff has been loath to explore potential problems. When initial borings indicated the presence of a tectonic fault directly beneath the site, the authority did no further study to determine the exact trajectory or length of the fault and did not ascertain its relationship to other nearby faults. In fact, says geologist H.C. Clark, a Rice University professor emeritus and witness for the dump's opponents, the authority would barely admit the fault's existence. "They called it 'deeply dipping topography' or things like that," Clark says. "They ran the risk that if they did more work and found out that that fault was more significant than their data showed, they'd be in real trouble."

The authority has every reason to ignore less than favorable data. In 1997, an impatient Legislature had come close to zeroing out the authority, which had spent millions with nothing to show for it. So when the authority purchased the $910,000 Faskin Ranch, a 16,000-acre site in Hudspeth County where it hopes to build the disposal facility, without first doing the requisite studies, it seemed determined to make the site work. "When you live next to these people [who work for the authority], you see the breakdown of the scientific process," says Linda Lynch, an artist and dump opponent who grew up in Hudspeth County. "If it ever had any integrity, it immediately started to disintegrate."

The authority's engineers say the site is designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 7.0 on the Richter scale occurring on the West Eagle Mountain fault six miles away, or up to 6.0 on the Richter scale three kilometers directly below the site. An actual quake could be much larger--the Radioactive Waste Management Associates study says the U.S. Geological Survey estimates an earthquake of 7.5 could occur along any of the faults in the area, and according to Jacobi's own notes, other researchers have predicted that an earthquake of up to 7.6 magnitude on the nearby Amargosa fault is "imminent." And these differences in quake size are significant--because the Richter scale is logarithmic, a 7.0 quake is 10 times greater and releases 30 times as much energy as a 6.0 quake.

Nevertheless, authority chief engineer Ruben Alvarado shrugs off the effects of an earthquake. "Why do you believe there are adverse consequences merely because an earthquake occurs?" he asks.

Even opponents of the dump say a big quake isn't the most likely catastrophe. Clark and other experts concur that over the centuries the dump is expected to perform, significant damage is more likely to come from several smaller earthquakes than one large one. But the authority has done no analysis of cumulative seismic impacts on the site.

According to federal guidelines, the man-made features of a radioactive-waste dump represent only a second line of defense against leakage; natural features such as bedrock should provide the primary containment of the waste. Underneath the surface of Sierra Blanca, the bedrock lies fractured like a broken china plate. Nevertheless, the authority asserts that what little water does seep into the ground will take at least 40,000 years to penetrate to the groundwater, and at least another 40,000 years to travel from the water table, which is 600 to 800 feet deep, to the Rio Grande. Even then, says Jacobi, the radioactivity would be at such low concentrations, it would present no health risk.

A study prepared for dump opponents by Radioactive Waste Management Associates casts doubts on these assertions. It points out that erosion, fissures, deep-rooted plants, and floods can cause more rapid travel times for water. It also says high tritium levels measured by the authority indicate that the groundwater could have been replenished by surface water in as few as 40 years (tritium was contained in fallout from nuclear-bomb tests conducted in the '50s). Alvarado counters that those tritium readings resulted from contaminated lab equipment and says there's no tritium at all in the groundwater.

Engineers and geologists have touted deserts as offering favorable conditions for low-level waste disposal. But groundwater contamination at another low-level dump has called that notion into question. In Beatty, Nevada, U.S. Geological Survey scientists were surprised to find levels of tritium and carbon-14 too high to be attributable to 1950s bomb fallout--the tritium was 357 feet deep and just 10 feet above the water table. The company running the Beatty dump, U.S. Ecology, had estimated that groundwater contamination could not occur for "tens of thousands of years."

In fact, all of the nation's original six low-level dumps have leaked, including the two that are currently operating. Furthermore, clean-up efforts run into the millions of dollars.

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