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Burnam: ‘Top Secret’ Documents Show Risks of Radioactive Waste Dump

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With a manila envelope labeled “TOP SECRET” propped up in front of him, state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, called on the Texas Attorney General to allow the public release of confidential information related to a West Texas radioactive waste dump owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.

Burnam said the documents, obtained after a two-and-a-half-year battle with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, show “serious public health and safety risks” from the dump. Waste Control is awaiting final sign-off from TCEQ to open the Andrews County facility. That could come as soon as Friday, Burnam said. The company has made no secrets about its plans to become a national site for the burial of radioactive waste but has been beset by critics who say the dump is dangerously close to water tables and possibly the Ogallala Aquifer.

Burnam offered little in the way of specifics. “Now I’ve seen some of the details but I can’t tell you,” he told reporters at a press conference at the Capitol this morning. In September 2011, Burnam signed a confidentiality agreement with TCEQ. But because of a court ruling, Burnam had the documents released to him as a “legislative privilege.”

As a general sketch of the confidential TCEQ documents, Burnam said they discussed the “location of nearby groundwater tables, the margin of safety in the event of groundwater contamination, what solutions were and were not considered and the possible risk to the public of radiation.”

In a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, Burnam asked for a decision on whether the “top secret” information is confidential under law. “I think the public has a right to know,” said Burnam. “I think public health and safety is involved in this right now. And it’s very immediate.”

This echoes concerns of former TCEQ geologists and engineers who told their superiors in 2007 that the license for Waste Control’s low-level radioactive waste facility shouldn’t be issued, in part, because of the presence of a water table near the proposed site. Three employees resigned in protest after their concerns were ignored. Glenn Shankle, the former executive director of TCEQ who issued Waste Control’s licenses, is now a lobbyist employed by the company.

The lawmaker also released non-confidential, public records from TCEQ that show water perilously close to the dump, in a so-called “buffer zone.” A monitoring well drilled in November has had several feet of water in it, according to TCEQ records. In late March, Waste Control wrote to the agency that it had pumped over 23,000 gallons out of the well. The water level in the well has declined about nine inches in the last four and a half months but at current rates wouldn’t be dry for another 18 months under current conditions.

“Where is the water coming from?” asked Burnam. “We have the right to know.”

Water has been an ongoing issue at the site. I wrote in June 2009 about nine areas inside and near the proposed landfills where groundwater is present. At that time, I wrote:

The red bed is leaking. After giant earthmovers dug deep into it, water began seeping out of the walls. On the southern wall, enough seeped out to form a pool of standing water. In December, the company claimed that the water would soon dissipate. But when a trio of TCEQ geologists visited Waste Control’s dump in January, a month and a half later, they noted that the puddle had actually grown (see photo above).

seep

Burnam said today that TCEQ shouldn’t allow Waste Control to open its dump until the company answers questions about the water.

According to Waste Control’s license, “In the event that saturated conditions are detected in the buffer zone, the Licensee shall cease all waste disposal operations and notify the executive director.”

After the press conference, Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald told me that the water in question is isolated and insignificant. He pointed out that the well is only about 35 deep and sits on top of a large mass of red-bed clay that’s supposed to seal the radioactive waste in.

“The proof is in the pudding,” McDonald said. “The site is open and the site is dry.”

In a press release, Waste Control CEO Bill Lindquist suggested that Burnam, who has a serious primary challenger, has something to gain politically. “To willfully attempt to mislead and frighten the public for craven political purposes is shameful conduct by Mr. Burnam,” said Lindquist.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.