Rep. Lon Burnam: Let's Tell Texas What Scientists Think About Radioactive Waste Site

In a letter Monday, state Representative Lon Burnam called upon Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to allow him to release confidential documents he says prove state regulatory scientists fear a West Texas radioactive waste disposal facility may contaminate groundwater for thousands of years to come.

Waste Control Specialists is set to reap millions in disposal fees from clients all over the country should state regulators allow it to open. The company is a subsidiary of Dallas-based Contran Corp., owned by Harold Simmons. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, Simmons is the second-most prolific disclosed political donor in the country, giving more than $12 million to outside spending groups seeking to influence federal elections. He is also, of course, a top donor to the governor.

It's the classic pay-to-play scenario: First he lobbied the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing private companies to handle radioactive waste. Then he got a second law passed that allowed only one company to get such a license. Simmons' company was the only company that applied.

Back in 2008, TCEQ geologists and engineers concluded that WDS' application to dispose of radioactive waste at a site near Andrews, a few hours northwest of Midland, should be denied because the water table was too near the dump. High rainfall, they feared, could cause water to seep into the waste, potentially contaminating the entire water table -- potentially even the multistate sprawling Ogallala Aquifer. Simmons' application had its own inertia behind it, though, and several TCEQ staffers resigned in protest. The same year Waste Control Specialists' disposal licenses were approved, the executive chairman of the state environmental commission quit to become a lobbyist for the company.

In 2009, Burnam filed a public record request for agency documents related to WCS' application. TCEQ released the information, but Burnam says he was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement. Now, he's calling upon Abbott to issue a ruling saying the documents can be released. Before the state regulator gives WCS the final go-ahead, he says, the public should know.

In a report to the TCEQ from the company, provided by Burnam's office, WCS notes that between November 2011 and March 2012, it has pumped more than 23,000 gallons from one of the disposal wells, indicating they may not be isolated from the water table.

"Until we know the source of this water, the likelihood of groundwater contamination, and the risk to the public, it's simply irresponsible to open this site," Burnam says.

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Brantley Hargrove