TCEQ Rolls Over for Harold Simmons

With $4.2 million, you too can buy yourself a state agency.
by Published on
Waste Control Specialists
Canisters of radiaoctive waste awaiting burial at WCS site

In a perfect illustration of its priorities, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has agreed to let Waste Control Specialists keep radioactive waste that the company imported, without authorization, from Studsvik, Inc., a Tennessee waste processor.

Since 2008, the state environmental agency told Waste Control, a company owned by Dallas bazillionaire and GOP financier Harold Simmons, that it didn’t have permission to bring in and store canisters of Class B and C waste – the hottest of so-called low-level radioactive waste – at the company’s Andrews, Texas site. Nonetheless, Waste Control informed TCEQ in May of last year that it was going to do so anyway. The goal, as the company readily admitted, was to have the waste on-site in preparation for burial at their dump. It’s part of a larger strategy of making Andrews a national radioactive waste dump.

So there the waste sat for over a year while TCEQ figured out what to do. In April, Waste Control asked for a waiver of their license’s one-year limit on radioactive waste storage. The company argued in a letter (pdf) that the Studsvik waste could be placed in “interim storage” (i.e. stored indefinitely). TCEQ denied the request. In a June letter (pdf), TCEQ wrote:

The Studsvik waste does not meet the criteria of interim storage since it does not meet all waste acceptance criteria for a LLRW [low-level radioactive waste] facility.  You claim that it meets the acceptance criteria of South Carolina; however, the Studsvik waste is excluded from acceptance at the South Carolina disposal facility. The recent WCS claims of interim storage status of the Studsvik waste is a new definition that is inconsistent with the terms of interim storage provided by both the regulatory agency and WCS itself in correspondence and submissions that are tie-downs for License R04971.

{bolding mine}

That seems pretty clear, right?

Well, last month, rather than fine the company or order them to return the waste, TCEQ issued a “compliance agreement” – a favorite tool of the punishment-averse agency. The agreement notes that Waste Control violated its license by storing the waste for longer than a year and allowing large cracks to form in the canisters’ asphalt pad site. But it allows Waste Control to store the Studsvik waste for three years so long as they meet certain criteria, such as submitting engineering and inspection plans for the pad site and securing a “take-back” agreement with Studsvik.

I don’t know what has changed since June, when TCEQ told Waste Control that the Studsvik waste couldn’t be put in interim storage. I don’t know what has changed since May 2009 when TCEQ told Waste Control that it didn’t have permission to import the Studsvik waste. And I don’t know what’s changed since 2008 when TCEQ and Waste Control agreed that major amendments to the storage and processing license were needed before the waste could be brought in and stored.

What I do know is that money talks. And Waste Control owner Harold Simmons has done plenty of talking, spending millions and millions on lobbyists and political contributions in Texas. Simmons and his company PAC have generously donated almost $4.2 million Texas politicians and PACs since 2001, according to Texans for Public Justice. To Gov. Perry, who appoints the TCEQ commissioners, Simmons has donated $620,000 since 2002. Is that why TCEQ never says “no” to this company? We report, you decide.

All things considered, this Studsvik deal is small beer compared to other goings-on at the Andrews dump. TCEQ has issued Waste Control two licenses to dispose of 2.3 million cubic feet of nuclear waste from Texas and Vermont; 26 million cubic feet of federal radioactive waste; and 32 million cubic feet of radioactive “byproduct material” (uranium mine tailings and some federal uranium enrichment spoils). For those of y’all who aren’t so good at math, that’s a little over 60 million cubic feet, or more than half of Cowboys Stadium.

Waste Control also plans to ask the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Commission (an under-funded, understaffed entity stacked with Perry appointees) for permission to import and bury nuclear waste from the 36 states currently lacking a disposal option.

Waste Control is also the top pick to store up to 10,000 tons of elemental mercury from the Department of Energy and are bidding to accept thousands of canisters of depleted uranium. Meanwhile, trains bearing 400,000 tons of PCB-laden mud from the Hudson River are making their way to Andrews for burial at Waste Control’s dump. No matter that former agency geologists and engineers have repeatedly warned that the dump sits in the immediate proximity of two water tables. What Simmons wants, Simmons gets.

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.