Thanks to outspoken Texas politicians like Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Joe Barton — who preach that regulation and oversight kills jobs — the state has garnered a reputation for being hostile toward health concerns, environmental controls and federal intervention.
That's why recent news concerning two Texas agencies and their decision to take a more measured stance with private entities comes as great relief. The entity in question, Waste Control Specialists (WCS), was previously greenlighted to dispose of radioactive waste in a remote area in West Texas. WCS' owner, billionaire and major Republican donor Harold Simmons, has another holding, NL Industries, which is well-known in environmental justice circles for its legacy of lead- and uranium-contaminated sites around the country.
The WCS dump site has been the center of heated debate among scientists, environmentalists, and lawmakers since the application process for licensing began in 2004.Serious questions remain about the dump's location and the presence of groundwater, namely, the Ogallala Aquifer.
Recently, two agencies, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission (TLLRWDCC or Texas Compact), have taken bold steps to slow down WCS' expansive aspirations by 1) enforcing regulations and 2) withdrawing proposed rules that could have opened up the site to the nuclear waste of 36 states. This might not sound like great strides, but in a regulatory situation where most of the final decisions regarding WCS are made by Gov. Perry appointees — and Simmons is a well-known financial backer of Perry — this is a big shift.
Last month TCEQ announced that WCS will be served with a Notice of Violation for storing non-compact waste beyond the 365 days allowed under their license. A WCS spokesperson said that they disagree with the agency that oversees radioactive substances for the state of Texas: “We have a difference of opinion and we're continuing discussions to resolve the issue.” TCEQ inspectors also detected cracks up to an inch wide on the asphalt pad that functions as a barrier between waste and the ground. In a May 25 letter from TCEQ to the company, inspectors requested more data on the pad such as engineering evaluations and a history of repairs. WCS described the cracks as “superficial.”
WCS is licensed by the state of Texas to dispose of radioactive waste from both compact states and federal sources. (“Compact” refers to a compact entered into by two or more states pursuant to the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985, established to shift oversight and responsibility of the disposal of waste to states.)
Currently, Texas has one other member in its compact: Vermont. The withdrawal of proposed rules governing the acceptance of non-compact last month by the Texas Compact marked a shift in what many assumed would be the continued green-lighting of WCS' business plan. One argument the company has made concerning non-compact waste is that the site is not financially viable if other states' waste streams are not allowed in (WCS has not publicly divulged the projected earnings from the disposal of federal waste). Others say the site is first and foremost a fulfillment of obligations of the Texas-Vermont compact and that the compact commission is responsible to citizens, not the financial success of a private entity. According to State Rep. Lon Burnam, “It's clearly our responsibility to manage our waste and our sister's waste from Vermont. It is not our responsibility to become the nation's nuclear waste dump.”
Last month, the Texas Compact was set to vote on proposed rules governing non-compact waste as well as respond to public comments. At the last minute, decisions were made to postpone the vote and re-draft the rules. Once the new rules are written, they are required to be published in the Texas Registry for a minimum of 30 days. Once posted, the public will have at least 30 days to comment before a final vote is taken. The commission has yet to announce a date for the release of reworked rules or when their next meeting might be held.
How important is the work of these agencies? Very. These two commissions are gatekeepers, charged with the serious business of regulation and oversight that the disposal of radioactive waste demands. And, according to TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson, the final say regarding volume of waste does not rest with the Texas Compact. “TCEQ has jurisdiction over low-level radioactive waste disposal, including capacity,” wrote Clawson.
He also added that “There are pending conditions of the license and an amendment currently being processed by the agency. The disposal facility is not yet operational nor has it received TCEQ written approval to begin facility construction.”
The slowdown of what has seemed inevitable to many, may be related to TCEQ's technical team's recent concerns with WCS shifting conceptual models and the possibility that water from the Ogallala Aquifer is on-site.
The wheels of regulation and oversight turn slowly in this part of the country, but there are hopeful signs that the lights have at least turned from green to yellow for now.