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TCEQ Against Reason

After four years and at least 14 permit application revisions, Waste Control Specialists today was awarded a contested and highly-controversial license to begin burying radioactive waste in a series of trenches in western Andrews County.

The site is at southwest end of the Panhandle near the New Mexico state line, where it backs up to an international consortium's uranium enrichment plant now under construction in neighboring Lea County, N.M.

Owned by Dallas-based billionaire and major GOP contributor Harold Simmons, WCS entered West Texas in the late '90s after more than a dozen years of failed state efforts to open a facility to dispose of radioactive civilian wastes from Texas and its compact partners of Maine and Vermont.

Once successful in getting legislation passed that allowed a private company to pick up the state's federally-mandated compact responsibilities, the company began vigorously pursuing the more lucrative U.S. Department of Energy waste streams.

Today, that effort paid off — despite ruptures within the TCEQ staff, many of which have gone public to decry the license on the grounds that the geology and hydrology of the site is not adequate to keep the waste contained for the required 50,000 years. (Read application terms and conditions.)

Former staffer in the radioactive materials division of TCEQ, Glenn Lewis, said that he assisted in characterizing the site for four years while the permit application went through "at least" 14 revisions.

Despite his group's finding that the site was unsuitable, and the two largest Notice of Deficiencies ever issued by the agency, Lewis said "there was the expectation clearly communicated four years ago that these licenses would ultimately be granted."

"Once it became clear that the geology was deficient … that the site was so profoundly deficient, we thought somehow that would be the stake through the heart."

Geologist Pat Bobeck resigned from the agency in protest.

"The application contained inconsistencies and contradictions and a lack of detailed geologic data," Bobeck said in a Sierra Club press release issued this afternoon. "There is water there in that clay and in the siltstone and water is going to move that waste around. It's going to cause problems and there's no way around that."

Perry-appointed TCEQ Commish's voted 2-1 to deny a requested contested case hearing and approved a radioactive waste dump that at least one former inspector says will sit just 14 feet above groundwater supplies. It is unclear at this point if that water is connected to the Ogallala — the nation's largest freshwater aquifer.

A contested case hearing would have required that lack of clarity to be rectified, Cyrus Reed, the state Sierra Club's conservation director, said during a conference call yesterday.

Eunice resident Rose Gardner, denied standing by the TCEQ today, said she intends to "bring awareness not just to the people that are ignoring this, but to the whole country."

Among the wastes to be buried will include some of the hottest of so-called "low-level" waste mined in the Belgian Congo and stored for many years in Fernald, Ohio.

The Sierra Club insists the Commissioners:

* failed to adequately characterize the underground geology and hydrology of the site;
* failed to model for severe weather events, including high winds;
* did not consider the potential for radioactive traffic accidents;
* did not look at surface water run-off; 
* and did not even perform the required one-year of pre-operation monitoring.

Reed said today the group is considering filing a motion for the TCEQ to reconsider its decision and possibly appealing to the State District Court.

Posted by Greg Harman on 5/21/2008
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