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Water, Water Everywhere

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In 2007, geologists for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told their bosses that a proposal for a radioactive waste dump in West Texas was fatally flawed because of the landfill’s proximity to the Ogallala and Dockum aquifers. Then-agency head Glenn Shankle (now a lobbyist for the dump’s owner, Waste Control Specialists) overruled his employees, issuing licenses for the two adjacent landfills in Andrews County. But as a compromise of sorts, he required Waste Control to conduct a number of tests and studies to prove that the site was dry enough.

Critics, including three whistleblowers who quit the agency in protest, were hardly mollified—in a sane world, they said, the company would have to prove that the dump wouldn’t leak radioactive waste into the groundwater before getting a permit, not after. But that’s all the TCEQ bosses were offering.

Now, some of the results from those studies are in. They are hardly reassuring. Waste Control, owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, has identified nine areas inside and near the proposed landfills where groundwater is present. The company has argued to the TCEQ in recent filings that these so-called “pockets of groundwater” are isolated from the aquifers and not a cause for concern. Some of them, the company says, are probably linked to playas—surface depressions, common to West Texas, that fill with water. Others, Waste Control contends, result from small depressions in the top of the red bed clay. The playas will be filled in with soil, the company promises, and the depressions in the clay are too small to matter.

Even so, the presence of any water is troubling. “If you have water in the ground you shouldn’t put a landfill there,” says Patricia Bobeck, a hydrogeologist who left the TCEQ in September 2007 and went public with her complaints that upper management had ignored the environmental and safety risks. Water can provide a pathway for radioactive particles to move quickly through the earth and permanently contaminate drinking or agricultural water.

Bobeck says the latest findings only underscore what she and other experts have been saying for years. “The people who rejected this site were not acting on a hunch,” she says. “WCS has corroborated that with their own data.”

In the past year, Waste Control, at the TCEQ’s request, has drilled dozens of new wells. Many of them, including some within the footprint of the radioactive waste dump, have inches or feet of water at the bottom.

“These wells indicate that the area around the byproduct excavation and southeastern portion of the low level site are much wetter than previously thought,” wrote Conrad Kuharic, a TCEQ geologist, in a February memo.

In its license application, Waste Control had argued that the landfills would be well away from a “dry line,” a shifting boundary on a map dividing wet wells from dry. But in April, confronted with the evidence from its own wells, the company conceded that that critical line had moved 200 feet closer, almost inside the landfills. Increased rainfall in the future may put the “dry line” inside the dump, TCEQ experts have contended. That, Bobeck says, is “bad news. This landfill by law cannot be placed in proximity with water.”

For years, Waste Control has touted its 1,300-acre dump site as nearly geologically perfect for containing radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years. The company’s primary selling point has been what it calls the “almost impenetrable red bed clay” in which the waste will be buried.

But 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).

Bobeck is skeptical that the discovery of groundwater in the radioactive waste dump will prompt the TCEQ to crack down. The additional studies, she says, were never intended to change Waste Control’s course.

Not surprisingly, the company agrees. “Groundwater occurrences in the vicinity of the Byproduct landfill have no impact on current planning for the operation of the landfill,” the company told the TCEQ in May.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

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.