Radiation, Immigration and Secret Love

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Dept. of Energy

Bringing the Heat

Waste Control Specialists, a radioactive-waste company owned by major Texas GOP financier Harold Simmons, appears to be defying state regulators by importing canisters of nuclear waste from out of state. So far, the amount is not huge—about 300 cubic feet. But the brazen move appears to be part of WCS’s plan to turn Andrews County into the nation’s new dumping ground for radioactive waste.

Waste Control already has permission to bury 60 million cubic feet of radioactive waste from Texas, Vermont and federal sources. But the company has said it will seek permission to import and bury radioactive materials from the 36 states that lack a disposal option.

Critics see the current importation of out-of-state waste without permission as a backdoor attempt to speed the process. Once the waste is stored on site, the thinking goes, it’s unlikely to ever be sent away.

The handful of environmental and citizen groups aware of the issue are furious with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that regulates radioactive waste. “TCEQ is asleep at the wheel,” says Eliza Brown of the SEED Coalition, an environmental nonprofit. “They’re failing to enforce their own rules and looking the other way while WCS imports radioactive waste from around the country, and possibly the world.”

Beginning in early 2008, TCEQ repeatedly told Waste Control that it needed permission before accepting canisters of Class B and C waste—the “hottest” of so-called low-level radioactive waste—from Studsvik Inc., a Tennessee waste processor. Even if the agency eventually okayed the plan, the waste could be stored for no more than a year, according to agency records.

In 2008, Waste Control agreed to submit safety and security plans as part of a major amendment to its license that would allow the storage. But the company never filed for a license amendment. Last February, Waste Control CEO Rod Baltzer told the Observer that the company had determined that it could already import out-of-state waste and would begin doing so in March or April. TCEQ said it was unaware of any such plans.

Evidently the agency found out. On May 20, TCEQ sent a letter to the company saying it had “not made a determination that acceptance of [the waste] is authorized,” and warning that Waste Control “may be subject to enforcement for the receipt” of unauthorized radioactive materials.

On June 2, a Waste Control lawyer wrote to TCEQ that the first shipment from Studsvik would be arriving in a few days. There was no need for regulators to get involved, the letter implied, since the lawyer had conducted his own legal review and concluded that there was “no question” the company could take the waste—and store it “indefinitely.”

TCEQ took no action. In mid-July, the Observer asked the agency for an explanation. Nearly a month later, a TCEQ spokesman responded from his personal e-mail account: “The TCEQ subsequently received additional information from the company re: Studsvick [sic] waste. As indicated previously, staff continues to evaluate issues related to receipt and storage of Studsvik waste for compliance with WCS’ license.”

The agency has not responded to numerous follow-up questions. Waste Control, on the other hand, recently told the Observer that it plans to import up to 1,000 more cubic feet of out-of-state waste in 2010.

—Forrest Wilder

Campaign Trail

The S Word

Before Bill White could even slap a “White for Governor” sticker on the nearest Smart car, the Republican Party of Texas was already hitting the former Houston mayor with an attack ad.

First aired two days before the Democrat announced his candidacy in late November, the ad shows White speaking, his words muted as the Platters croon “The Great Pretender.” Text scrolls across White’s bald pate, accusing him of various liberal misdeeds. The first accusation: White ran a “sanctuary city”—a loaded and amorphous term often tossed around by anti-immigration groups. Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy, says the GOP has picked up the term as shorthand for being “soft on illegal immigration and pro-amnesty.”

Immigration bashing might work fine in March’s Republican primary, Murray says, but with most Texans supporting immigration reform and the Hispanic population continuing to boom, it’s a questionable general-election strategy at best. As for the specific “sanctuary” allegation, Murray notes that “they have a rather flimsy case. Houston is not San Francisco.”

Before “sanctuary city” became a buzz phrase for anti-immigration types, it had a more beneficent (and accurate) origin. During the 1980s, some U.S. cities like San Francisco offered havens to Central American political refugees, who were often unable to obtain visas to enter legally when they fled CIA-funded dirty wars in their own countries. The cities passed “sanctuary” ordinances preventing city employees and police officers from asking people about their immigration status.

White has confronted the “sanctuary city” allegation before. In 2006, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service described Houston and 31 other cities as having “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies around immigration status—a phrase that immediately translated into “sanctuary city” in right-wing circles. White was quick to point out that in Houston, people arrested for Class B misdemeanors or more serious crimes are checked for immigration status, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are given full access to city jails. On December 17, White announced that the city will now also screen anyone who commits a less-serious Class C misdemeanor.

None of which is likely to stop Texas’ Grand Old Party from continuing to lob the “sanctuary” grenade at White in hopes of riling up anti-immigrant voters. But in a state in which Latinos have accounted for 65 percent of the population growth over the past decade, the Republicans could be doing White a favor.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They’re not only alienating Latinos but also some of their own constituency: wealthy businessmen who have undocumented employees.”

—Melissa del Bosque

Dept. of Unconditional Love

Sessions ♥ Stanford

Even after Houston financier Allen Stanford was charged with perpetrating one of the largest frauds in American history, Texas Congressman Pete Sessions still hadn’t lost the faith.

“I love you and believe in you. If you want my ear/voice—e-mail.”

That was the email message that Sessions, a Dallas Republican, sent to Stanford on Feb. 17, just hours after Stanford was charged with overseeing a $7 billion ponzi scheme, according to The Miami Herald.

The newspaper reported on Dec. 28 that the Justice Department is investigating whether several members of Congress, including Sessions, did favors for Stanford in exchange for campaign contributions that totaled $2.3 million and lavish trips to the Caribbean. Sessions received $44,375 in campaign contributions from Stanford, according to public records. At the moment, there’s no evidence that Sessions did anything unethical on Stanford’s behalf.

Sessions has weathered one minor scandal after another in his 13 years in Congress. Some Republican colleagues have nicknamed him Teflon Pete. (See “What, Me Worry?” April 20, 2007.) But telling the disgraced Allen Stanford that he still loved and believed in him is one excess that Sessions may never live down.

—Dave Mann

On the Scene

Constructing Injustice

On a chilly evening shortly before Christmas, about 50 construction workers and workers’ advocates gathered around a makeshift memorial for three men who fell to their deaths while building a high-rise condo tower near the University of Texas at Austin last June. The crowd huddled together for warmth on the sidewalk in front of the 21 Rio high-rise. Holding candles, they gazed at three white wooden crosses placed on the sidewalk next to the dead workers’ battered boots and white hard hats. On each cross was written a name in black ink: Wilson Arias, Raudel, Jesus.

photo by Eugenio del BosqueInside the building, which opened last fall, a young man could be seen peering out the window at the solemn proceedings, looking puzzled. Ministers and members of the local Latino community took turns at the microphone, denouncing the unsafe work practices and wage theft that are rampant in Texas. Construction worker Juanito Mirabal told the crowd that he was there when the scaffolding collapsed and his three co-workers tumbled 11 stories to their deaths. “I’m here because I want better security for all of us on work sites,” he said in Spanish. “And I want justice.”

According to the workers and the nonprofit Workers Defense Project, no one—including the families of the dead men—was paid for their final two weeks of work on 21 Rio. “I’m still owed $5,200,” Mirabal says. “The subcontractor I work for is gone—he went back to Honduras.”

It’s an all-too-familiar story in the state’s construction industry. Contractors hire subcontractors who bid cheap. The bosses don’t ask questions. And the immigrant men who do the work often end up injured or unpaid—and if they’re undocumented, they have little legal recourse.

There are too few federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors to ensure that every worksite is safe. Even when a construction company is fined, it hardly makes a dent. After 19-year-old Omar Puerto was electrocuted in Austin in 2006 while fixing rain gutters on an apartment building, the company that hired him, Gutter Tech, was fined a mere $4,950 for failing to provide safety training and a fiberglass ladder.

In December, the four companies that built 21 Rio—Andres Construction, Greater Metroplex Interiors, American Mast Climbers and Capoera Construction— received 23 fines between them for a long list of safety violations that led to the deaths of Raudel, Jesus and Wilson Arias. The fines totaled $159,600.

“OSHA’s citations are significant,” says Emily Timm of the Workers Defense Project, “because they demonstrate how all actors on the construction site are responsible for the safety of the workers. You can’t subcontract safety away.”

You also can’t bring back the dead. On average, a construction worker dies every two and a half days in Texas.

—Melissa del Bosque