Harold Simmons' Radioactive Waste Dump Gets the Go-Ahead from State Regulators

A radioactive waste disposal company owned by Harold Simmons' Dallas-based Contran Corp. has been given the green light by state regulators to dispose of low-grade radioactive waste at a West Texas site.

Representative Lon Burnam, who says he possesses confidential documentation exposing an undercurrent of dissent and worry within the agency over the disposal site, expressed disappointment when Unfair Park reached him Friday afternoon. "I think it's not appropriate," he said.

In 2009, Burnam filed an open records request with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requesting documents related to Waste Control Specialists' permit application. The documents Burnam received, he says, prove TCEQ scientists fear the disposal site may contaminate groundwater -- even, perhaps, the vast Ogallala Aquifer. Despite the fact that its own scientists recommended denying Simmons' permit, it persisted, prompting a few of them to resign in protest.

Burnam says TCEQ forced him to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would hand over the documents. Last week, he called on state attorney general Greg Abbott to issue an opinion stating Burnam can release them to the public. Abbott, he says, hasn't responded. "We really never expected to hear from the attorney general's office," Burnam said. "Not when you consider how much money the attorney general has received in contributions from Mr. Simmons."

Indeed, Simmons, one of the most prolific disclosed donors to federal elections in the country, has given nearly $700,000 over the years to Abbott's re-election campaigns, according to campaign finance reports. He's equally as active in state politics, and succeeded in lobbying the legislature to pass a bill allowing private companies to handle radioactive waste. He lobbied for a second bill that resulted in the issuance of a single permit -- which his company, of course, secured.

Apart from a lawsuit filed against the TCEQ by the Sierra Club (set for court May 8), Burnam says there's nothing stopping Simmons, even though there's evidence of water seeping into the disposal wells. As recently as March, a report to the TCEQ from the company noted that since November 2011 it had pumped some 23,000 gallons out of one of the radioactive waste disposal wells, indicating they may not be isolated from the water table.

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Brantley Hargrove