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Radioactive Waste Dump over Ogallala Aquifer?

Six years later, Waste Control still doesn't know if its radioactive waste dump sits on Ogallala Aquifer
by Published on
Waste Control Specialists

You’d think after six years of intensive study, Waste Control Specialists would have some idea whether or not their radioactive waste dump near Andrews is going to be built over, around, near, on top of or within an aquifer. Nope – not according to the latest information from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Documents available on TCEQ’s website make it clear that the company still doesn’t understand the geology of their dump site. Once again we’re presented with a troubling question: Why did TCEQ issue Waste Control a license before the site had been proven safe?

Before we delve into the details, let’s go back in time and review the timeline:

  • 2003: Texas Legislature privatizes low-level radioactive waste disposal in Texas
  • 2004: Waste Control is the only company to file an application for a disposal license
  • August 2007: Team of geologists and engineers at TCEQ unanimously recommend that the license be denied, contending that the Andrews site is in the “immediate vicinity” of two water tables
  • Late 2007: Then-executive director Glenn Shankle orders the license issued anyway
  • June 2008: Shankle resigns from TCEQ
  • August 2008: Draft license issued
  • January 2009: Shankle goes to work for Waste Control as a lobbyist, collecting between $100,000 and $150,000
  • September 2009: Final license issued to Waste Control. The license contains numerous requirements that the company perform additional modeling and study of the site, including a complete “hydrogeologic conceptual model.”

Those are the bare facts. You can interpret them how you want, but isn’t their something… backwards about authorizing a massive nuclear dump and then requiring solid proof that the site isn’t going to leak into the groundwater?

How about that proof?

In March, the TCEQ staff provided an 81-page technical tear-down of Waste Control’s fulfillment of the license requirements. Most damning was the staff’s review of the company engineers’ hydrogeologic conceptual model.

The new model, the staff wrote is “radically different “ from the previous one (emphasis in the original). That, on its own, is worrying. The company shouldn’t be totally rethinking their concept at this late date.

Most of the language in the review is highly technical but this paragraph practically leaps off the page:

Finally, it is worth noting that if the source water for the sandstone/siltstone materials beneath the site is from a subcrop to the west, it is likely that this water is Ogallala water, as the Ogallala Aquifer has significant saturated thickness to the west of the proposed site. If so, then water in the sandstone/siltstone materials at the proposed site is Ogallala water. While the new hydrogeologic conceptual model is explicit in claiming an uncoupling of the saturated conditions in the OAG materials at the site from saturated conditions in the Ogallala, immediately to the north, it is not so explicit it recognizing the possibility that there is a coupling between the deeper Dockum materials and the Ogallala waters.

It’s important to note that the staff isn’t saying that the dump site is in the Ogallala Aquifer. They’re simply following the gnarly logic of the Waste Control engineers to its logical conclusion.

Regardless, either one of two things is true: 1) The dump is sited in the Ogallala Aquifer, or 2) The new conceptual model is flawed. If it’s the former, then one would assume that the dump can’t legally be built. If it’s the latter, well, then back to the drawing board.

Waste Control, of course, maintains that the Ogallala Aquifer is nowhere near the site and is actually suing a group, Save the Ogallala Aquifer, for asserting as much.

At one point in the review, the author sarcastically suggests that Waste Control is “in a position to make a significant contribution to the hydrogeologic literature” since the assertions they make have no basis in the literature.

There are other interesting tidbits. Waste Control now asserts that “groundwater only occurs below areas of focused recharge (e.g., in playas, low areas, and other areas of interrupted surface drainage associated with construction activities and roads.”

Yet, as the staff review notes: “groundwater has been observed at wells spread out covering more than 50% area of the entire WCS site.” In fact, water levels in the wells has been increasing in recent months, according to this May 3rdlist of technical deficiencies” from TCEQ to Waste Control.

Yesterday, several environmental groups held a webinar on various Waste Control issues. On the call was Glenn Lewis, the former TCEQ employee who headed up the license review team. I asked him about the latest.

“Their conceptual model never was nailed down,” Lewis said. “It never was steady. They would issue a model … that was almost casually dismissed as being nonsensical and then when queried about it they would ultimately revise their conceptual model.”

He added: ““It is now six years later and they still don’t know.”

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.