Out in West Texas, Harold Simmons Is Burying Hudson River Carcinogens

Ever wondered what's at the bottom of New York's Hudson River? Andrews, a small West Texas town 350 miles west of Dallas, is about to find out.

Last month, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved an application to allow the disposal of low-level radioactive waste in a site just outside of Andrews. Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who controls Waste Control Specialists, the company that applied for the permit and owns the site, has been waiting for this moment for years -- and, as a recent D CEO article suggests, stands to reap some fat financial benefits from the deal. But before WCS gets any radioactive waste, its Andrews site will have the privilege of housing some of New York City's worst pollutants: millions of cubic yards of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a carcinogenic compound.

For three decades, General Electric legally dumped PCBs into the Hudson River. In 2002, the EPA declared the river a Superfund site and ordered GE to dredge it and remove the toxic compounds. GE was then responsible for finding a place to dispose of the contaminated sediments; in 2007, it chose the WCS site in Andrews. GE rep Mark Behan tells Unfair Park dredging and sediment transport (via railroad) will begin this May and last through October. Though this isn't WCS's first contract to store PCBs, it will be its largest -- and possibly most lucrative.

And the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club is begging the EPA to stop sending them to West Texas.

Exporting environmental problems is hardly unprecedented, but the Sierra Club's Neil Carman says there was an alternative: neutralizing the toxic compounds before they even left the Hudson.

"The technology has existed for 15 years to neutralize PCBs," Carman says. "There's no reason in the world we should be shipping them elsewhere."

But according to Behan, dredging, not neutralization, is all the EPA ordered. And in the EPA's view, there is a reason.

"The most cost-effective way to proceed was shipping sediments to [an out-of-state] storage facility," says Kristen Skopeck, the EPA's community liaison for the Hudson cleanup. "We're trying to do it as quickly, as expediently, as [possible]." Which does nothing to soothe the Sierra Club.

"All they're doing is relocating toxic waste," he tells Unfair Park. "They're moving a problem from one location to another [and] creating problems for future generations to solve."

PCBs, unlike nuclear waste, don't degrade over time; they'll be just as toxic hundreds of years from now. But their container drums will at some point have to be cleaned and replaced. Carman also says earthquakes in nearby New Mexico and sensitive aquifers underneath the storage site could lead to groundwater contamination. An SEC filing from Valhi (the Simmons-owned parent company, which owns 90 percent of WCS) in 2002 insists that "based on  extensive drilling by the oil and gas industry in the area, Waste Control Specialists does not believe there are any underground aquifers or other usable sources of water directly below the site."

Carman is particularly concerned that no one has disclosed the rail route for the contaminated sediments. But the EPA's Skopeck says that's normal: "PCBs and other wastes are transported by rail all the time, secretly." Which means a train of toxic waste could be rumbling through the DFW right now? Skopeck says that once the bottom of the Hudson River leaves New York, it's no longer under the EPA's mandate. The safe transport of hazardous cargo falls to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Skopeck says, and whatever happens to the waste once it gets to the WCS site is governed by the state of Texas.

But TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson says the waste storage permits WCS holds are granted by the EPA, under the Toxic Substances Control Act -- "for which TCEQ has no jurisdiction," Clawson wrote in an e-mail sent to Unfair Park Friday. He writes, "At present, the TCEQ may not require an Environmental Impact Statement for the WCS facility."

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Alexa Schirtzinger