In a dark basement at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, just north of downtown, sits a small, continually refreshed stockpile of radioactive waste that awaits disposal. After it leaves Southwestern, it is taken out to the tiny town of Andrews, where it is promptly added to the only radioactive waste dump site in Texas, the Texas Compact Waste Facility.
Beginning in 2007, the Dallas-based radioactive waste disposal company Waste Control Specialists (WCS) faced a major lawsuit by the Sierra Club, which alleged that the Andrews dump site was contaminating groundwater. The lawsuit called for the discontinuation of the state-issued waste site disposal license. A Texas appeals court in April ruled in favor of WCS and upheld the license. Now, in an apparent celebration of their secured license, WCS wants to expand the West Texas waste site. It just needs some help from the state.
Although only a fraction of the dump complex is currently filled with waste, WCS has recently begun to worry about exceeding the state-allotted land space. Company spokesman Chuck McDonald says that while the full 9 million cubic feet will likely never be used, an expansion would provide some peace of mind for Waste Control Specialists.
The WCS has filed an amendment to that original waste site license with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The amendment would expand the current allotted volume of the waste site from 2.3 million cubic feet to 9 million cubic feet. The WCS is arguing that expansion is an assurance against any possible future overflow.
At the same time, WCS has asked the state to reduce the amount of money it has to pay liability claims, from $136 million to around $80 million. The company says the original amount guaranteed by the state, before the dump complex was built, has proved unnecessary.
"Now that facility is up and operational, we're trying to get financial insurance in line with what was ultimately constructed," McDonald says. And if the expansion amendment is passed, the WCS would then request an increase. "If the facility was three or four times larger in future years, we would make the corresponding adjustment."
Some are saying that cutting liability insurance in the face of a potential increase in radioactive waste is asking for trouble. Representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth says that an insurance cut combined with expanded land space doesn't make sense. "We have less and less financial assurances and greater threat for more harm," he told CBS11.
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The proposed expansion of the license and the budget reduction are bringing attention to the practice of radioactive waste disposal. Opponents argue that the WCS is guilty of placing dump sites too near water sites that provide for nearby populaces. When that happens, local water is at risk of being contaminated with radioactive waste, among other potential health problems.
But McDonald says WCS is simply an organization charged with disposing nuclear waste and has nothing to do with its creation.
"They're picking a fight with us that we have nothing to do with. We're not creating the waste," McDonald said. "Whether you think it's a good thing or bad thing is irrelevant, that waste exists." Andrews, a city of 10,000 residents in West Texas, is a much better place to put this waste than a hospital basement in downtown Dallas, McDonald said.
"To be angry at us for taking an existing problem and helping alleviate it is laughable," he said. "Anyone that takes that criticism seriously is deluding themselves."