Getting dumped

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

Of course, the more parties who dump at the site, the lower the rates will be--which is the main reason utilities lobbied in the early '90s for Texas to join a compact in the first place. Jacobi, who did an about-face and began to support the compact, argues that, despite state laws forbidding out-of-state waste, without a compact Texas could be forced to accept waste from anyone under the Interstate Commerce Act. However, in a 1992 letter to then-Governor Ann Richards, Attorney General Dan Morales wrote, "There is a reasonable basis for a legal prediction that, in the absence of a compact, Texas can successfully provide for disposal of low-level radioactive waste generated in public, without sacrificing our ability to exclude out-of-state waste." In 1993, Richards signed the compact into law, although Congress has yet to approve it.

Contrary to Jacobi's argument that the compact will protect Texas, governor-appointed compact commissioners, six from Texas and one each from Maine and Vermont, would be specifically permitted to contract with any public or private waste generator to accept their waste.

Utilities fought hard against an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, that would have limited the dump to accepting waste from Maine, Vermont, and Texas. The Maine Yankee nuclear plant, which hopes to be able to "sublease" its space in the dump to other waste generators, threatened to pull support of the compact if the amendment. Though approved by both houses, the amendment was jettisoned by a conference committee last week.

According to HL&P's estimates, its savings will be about $500,000 a year. However, Texas Utilities spokesman Eric Schmitt says dependability, not dollar savings, is most important to the utilities. He points to the fact that Texas and several other states were prevented by the South Carolina Legislature from dumping at Barnwell for 12 months in 1994 and 1995 (nuclear plants are required to have on-site storage capacity for five years' worth of waste).

"From month to month, from year to year, we don't know if the Barnwell facility will be available to us or not," Schmitt says. "We want something we can count on."

It's not clear that rate-payers would benefit from lower disposal costs. Schmitt says that whatever savings TU could muster from shipping to Sierra Blanca instead of South Carolina likely would not get translated into rate cuts for customers because waste-disposal costs amount to less than 1 percent of the total operation and maintenance costs for Comanche Peak, the nuclear plant TU owns. But Graham Painter, a spokesman for Houston Lighting & Power, insists that "Every dollar that we save is a dollar we don't have to get from customers in Texas. We're talking about costs that customers shoulder. We're really not talking about hitting the utility's bottom line." Still, impending deregulation, which will be a major issue in the next legislative session in Texas, could allow utilities to pocket the savings.

Beyond direct costs, radioactive waste represents a major liability for utilities, one they are anxious to foist off on the state. Texas will shoulder responsibility for all the waste deposited at Sierra Blanca, including that from Maine and Vermont. And liability can be expensive--after a protracted legal battle with the private operator of its dump site, Maxey Flats, Kentucky was forced to shoulder the cost of cleaning it up--$144 million over the next 100 years.

The authority needs three things before it can begin construction on Sierra Blanca: Congress must approve the compact; the Texas Legislature must appropriate funds for the facility; and the TNRCC commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and have a well-deserved reputation for supporting industry, must license the facility. So far, the TNRCC's executive director, Barry McBee, has recommended granting the license, but the agency's Public Interest Council lawyers--whose budget is set by the executive director, and who were given no money to fight the Sierra Blanca site in the hearings--have recommended against it. The independent judges who conducted the license hearing also recommended the license not be granted, but the commissioners can review the information and decide for themselves--a process that may take months.

Surprised by the judges' ruling, opponents have theorized that it's a delay tactic to postpone the license until after the election, when the pressure is off Governor Bush. Up to now, Bush has been successful at winning over Hispanic voters, but his support of the dump has led some Mexican politicians to compare him to California Governor Pete Wilson, who supported a referendum to deny illegal immigrants education and medical care.

Meanwhile, other states are stalling on finding their own dump sites, perhaps in hopes that someone else will be first. Economist Gregory Hayden, a commissioner for the Central Interstate Compact, which encompasses a region from Louisiana to Nebraska, made national headlines in 1997 when he issued the report questioning the need for any new dumps at all. "New disposal facilities are not needed and would not be financially viable," Hayden predicted. "The only driver for new sites has been the Compact law, not demand."

Of the nine existing compacts, four have postponed or canceled their siting processes. The Southwest Compact's chosen site, in California, is tied up in court. The Central-Interstate Compact has applied to license a site in Nebraska's poorest county. In the Southeast Compact, North Carolina is considering defunding its siting process. The Midwest Compact has become practiced at passing the buck: when South Dakota was selected as the dump state, its residents turned out in record numbers to vote to leave the compact. Illinois was the next state selected; it pulled out as well because other compact states refused to assume shared liability for the waste. Michigan left because the siting process threatened to violate its own environmental laws, and Ohio, the current Midwest Compact dump state, has canceled its search for a site.

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