TCEQ Approves Nuclear Waste Site Expansion Despite Environmental Concerns

In a quiet, private vote yesterday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to approve a Dallas-based chemical waste management company's request to triple capacity at its West Texas disposal site. Waste Control Specialists had proposed that it site grow from 2.3 million cubic feet to 9 million cubic feet. State regulators are also slashing the amount required for liability insurance.

In recent years, WCS faced a major lawsuitseeking to remove its operating license. The Sierra Club, among other environmental activists, claimed that its Texas Compact Waste Facility in Andrews County was located too close to a major aquifer and there were concerns of potential groundwater contamination. Although the company was assured of its license last April, the facility has remained a point of contention between environmental advocates and WCS.

Earlier this summer, fresh from their legal victory and restored reputation, WCS proposed to triple capacity on the facility and cut liability insurance. The three-member commission voted unanimously yesterday, without hearing any oral arguments, to expand the nuclear and radioactive waste dump.

Some legislators find the lack of argument the most infuriating aspect of the move. "In order to max the polluters' profit margins, they are reducing the citizen's public input. Since they had already made up their mind, why waste their time with public input?" says the recently ousted Representative Lon Burnam, a longtime environmental advocate in the Legislature. "This has been a calamity from the word 'go.'"

WCS is dismissing critics, saying that the move is a necessary growth in state waste storage. "They're picking a fight with us that we have nothing to do with. We're not creating the waste. Whether you think it's a good thing or bad thing is irrelevant, that waste exists," says Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for the WCS. "To be angry at us for taking an existing problem and helping alleviate it is laughable. Anyone that takes that criticism seriously is deluding themselves."

At current count, the site is only marginally filled with radioactive waste. But WCS claims that an expansion of the site could be necessary in future years.

The TCEQ also approved slashed insurance requirements for the site. WCS had to pay $136 million to the state to cover liability claims, and requested to scale that back to $80 million. The argument is that the previous allotted amount was too much for the size and scope of the site, and that the original amount was an unnecessary and wasteful price tag.

But the move is not so cut and dry. Beginning in 2011, Texas opened up to receiving radioactive waste from 36 other states. With dramatically increased material, business is booming for WCS and the Texas Compact Waste Facility. And with more hazardous material combined with less funds to bail the site out of potential trouble, environmental advocates across the state are in an uproar.

"It's a very concerning major amendment. The volume is one concern, that's the amount of waste they can take on the site," says Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Sierra Club, who was also involved in the lawsuit against WCS. "The ramifications are that we're expanding the volume and type of waste. We're taking in hotter and hotter waste."

With lowered insurance, the state would be responsible for any accidents or groundwater contamination that might occur near the site which exceeds the altered insurance amount. "I hope to God there's no problem, and it doesn't leak into the groundwater," Reed says.

"We can't guarantee that though. This stuff has a history of causing problems," he says. "And ultimately there's going to be a lot of long-lasting waste out there thats going to have to be monitored for hundreds of years. You can't just bury this stuff and expect it not to have consequences."

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Emily Mathis