Capitol Offenses

Chairman Chisum Goes Critical

Somebody should have sold programs – and Texas State Directories, to cross-reference the lobbyists who recently worked for the government they are now lobbying. Standing outside the House chamber was Tony Proffitt, who followed his former boss Bob Bullock from the Lieutenant Governor’s office into the lobby. Proffitt works for Waste Control Specialists, which operates a huge hazardous waste dump in Andrews County and is angling for a private permit to bury Department of Energy radioactive waste at the same site. Upstairs in the gallery was Rick Jacobi, who late last year left the executive director’s position at the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority to lobby for Envirocare, which purchased a low-level radioactive dump site in Andrews County, then declared it unfit because of hydrology problems. In the Capitol lobby behind Proffitt was former Speaker of the House Billy Clayton, who represents Envirocare. Behind him were three Waste Control Specialists lobbyists: former state Rep Hilary Doran, former Speaker Pro Tem Hugo Berlanga, and former Department of Agriculture legislative liaison Mignon McGarry. Leaning on the rail under the rotunda was Waste Control lobbyist Reggie Bashur, who has worked for Governors George W. Bush and Bill Clements. Waste Control’s former state Senator Carl Parker was absent. And Gib Lewis, the former Speaker of the House hired by Envirocare, was nowhere to be seen. But Eddie Selig – the Gunga Din of radioactive waste and sewage sludge – never left the building. Seated by the north entrance to the House gallery was LBJ look-alike Kinnan Goleman, who didn’t seem to have a dog in today’s fight but never strays too far from policy decisions involving sludge pits or smokestacks. So when Waste Control’s state rep Gary Walker said he was leaving the chamber “to talk to my people,” nobody expected to see a single constituent from the Panhandle. It was that kind of day. It was also a day of intense debate, a rarity this session but the sort of debate that ensures – in the words of a public interest lobbyist who watched a similar fight two sessions ago – “that all the shit floats to the top.” Specious arguments, shouting matches, misrepresentations and outright lies, threats, bullying, armtwisting, points of order, and the inevitable floor speeches by Houston Representative Ron Wilson and Mauriceville Representative Ron Lewis – two House veterans without whom bad environmental policy in Texas might be set back a decade. If the three guys in the green lobby – Raúl Alvarez and Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club, and Tom Smith of Public Citizen – didn’t feel overwhelmed, they were delusional. On the floor was House Bill 1910, drafted in response to what at least ten legislators and one W.C.S. lobbyist described as “eighteen years and $53 million dollars” wasted on a failed attempt to establish a repository for the state’s low-level nuclear waste. After the Legislature and the Rad Waste Authority failed to find a home for radioactive waste in Fort Hancock, Dell City, and most recently Sierra Blanca, House Environmental Regulation Committee Chair Warren Chisum had put together a bill that was the product of negotiations, committee hearings, and compromises. The one compromise Chisum would not consider was a provision that would allow private companies to hold licenses to dispose of radioactive waste. As the bill is written, the state will hold the license and can enter into a contract with a private company. But, Chisum has warned, there is a huge financial liability and a serious environmental threat associated with completely privatized nuclear waste dumps. So when an amendment that would allow a private license came up on the floor on the last Friday in April, Chisum dug in. “Members, I want you to listen carefully, he said from the lectern at the front of the House. “What we are talking about is nuclear waste and a huge potential liability for the state.” Warren Chisum is not exactly an Earth Firster. But he took on a pack of low-level-waste lobbyists who had laid back during two months of House committee hearings, then spent two intense weeks aggressively pushing an amendment to open the state up to unregulated disposal of Department of Energy radioactive waste – which includes tons of stockpiled weapons waste. The amendment was offered by Gary Walker, a Republican who represents Andrews in the far west corner of the Panhandle. (“I represent a county,” Walker said, “that could use the jobs created by a low level waste site to make up for the oilfield jobs we’ve lost.”) Chisum had anticipated the amendment, and warned Walker that he would use a parliamentary point of order to kill it when the bill came to the floor. He then asked Speaker Pete Laney to postpone debate until later in the day, “as a courtesy to Representative Walker, to give him some time to talk to his people.” Asked if Walker had the votes, Chisum laughed. “I guess we’ll never know – will we?” When the bill came to the floor, Walker offered his amendment and Chisum challenged it with a point of order. Because House rules do not allow amendments that reverse the intent of the bills they would amend, he prevailed. With Chisum’s bill back where he wanted it, the House resumed debate, some of which clearly illustrated the utter folly of nuclear energy and weapons programs. For example, Chisum argued that plutonium waste, with a half-life of 35,000 years, is far safer stored above ground in “assured isolation mausoleums” than in trenches – a position supported by the Sierra Club. Yet when he cited the 35,000-year half-life as a reason why plutonium should be monitored by the state Department of Health rather than the Natural Resource Conservation Commission, “until it no longer is a threat to public health and is safe to put in the ground,” he sounded pretty loopy. (Each of those agencies, after all, will have to go through the legislative sunset process 3,500 times before the plutonium waste is cool enough to bury.) And his cautionary tale about technicians at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo doing open air burns of solvent that contained high explosives and plutonium – “which doesn’t go away when you burn it!” – had Chisum stealing lines from Mavis Belisle of Amarillo’s anti-nuke Peace Farm. Chisum even raised the spectre of accidental nuclear detonation, observing that “if they make a mistake at Pantex, we all die.” All of this to illustrate the difference between the Department of Energy waste that would be buried in the Andrews dump, and the power plant and hospital waste to be stored in a Texas dump to be established, under the federal Texas- Maine-Vermont Compact. While the chairman held forth from the front mike, Walker and Waste Control regrouped, as Walker moved to delete several critical lines from the bill – which had the same effect as his earlier amendment without being technically “an amendment.” (When dealing with House procedure, it’s always helpful to have a former speaker and speaker pro tem on your lobby team.) An utterly sober Chisum pleaded with the House not to allow any changes that would open the door to “fifty million cubic tons of Department of Energy [Defense] waste that is currently looking for a home.” Environmental Regulation Committee Vice Chair Ray Allen, always on the side of industry and averse to environmental groups, warned the House that it was poised to approve a measure that would allow “a private company to make a profit by disposing of fifty million cubic feet of Department of Energy waste in Texas.” Pasadena Republican Robert Talton (who also serves on Environmental Regulation where he is an implacable opponent to environmental initiatives) warned of new Superfund Sites created by private companies, to be cleaned up later at taxpayers’ expense. Then, as if on cue, Ron Wilson played the race card, describing “black children in Houston walking by buildings filled with rusting drums of radioactive waste.” And Ron Lewis played the dumb card, urging the House to accept Walker’s amendment, because “Andrews wants it,” and to thereby create a dumpsite for waste generated by industries and utilities in Texas. Neither of the Rons’ arguments was remotely related to Department of Energy waste; disposal of the much lower volume of commercial radioactive waste they described was covered in the bill they wanted to amend. “I don’t want any waste from outside the compact coming into Texas,” Talton argued, referring to D.O.E. waste that cannot be regulated by the state. But two months’ work by two dozen lobbyists was more than Chisum, Allen and Talton – hardly candidates for recruitment into the Texas Green Party – could turn around in three hours. The House voted 94 to 38 to adopt the Walker amendment and open the door to Department of Energy waste. Not even a breathless, last minute appeal by Appropriations Committee Chair Rob Junell, who raced into the chamber just after the vote, could persuade the House to reconsider. “Am I to understand that as this stands now, there is nothing in your [amended] bill that protects the state from financial liability for damage done by a private company?” Junell asked from the back mike. Chisum answered Junell’s rhetorical question then asked to withdraw his bill – an almost unprecedented move so close to final passage. “I’m going to pull the bill down if they don’t take this amendment off. The environmental risks are too great….” Chisum said in an interview after the debate. He argued that current law is preferable to what Walker’s amendment would allow. “We can leave the waste in the back yard of the state of Texas. That’s where it is now – in those hundreds of sites all over Texas. I’d rather do that than bring in Department of Energy waste from all over the country. “They have got thirty-seven of the highest paid lobbyists in Texas working on this deal and they’ve got a lot of commitment on the floor,” Chisum added, shortly after he asked the House to defer its vote. Asked who “they” were, Chisum was straightforward: “I mean Waste Control Specialists – Waste Control Specialists, that’s who funded this thing. The principal in that is Harold Simmons out of Dallas; Kent Hance is another principal. They are the ones that are driving this train now. They are the ones that are going to take this D.O.E. waste.” (Chisum later said that W.C.S. has twenty-four of the thirty-seven lobbyists involved.) As the House adjourned, Chisum repeated that unless the amendment is withdrawn, he will work to kill his own bill. He added that it is rare for a bill to be passed over the objection of its author, yet seemed concerned that the Waste Control Specialists lobbyists will push the bill right over him. “We may be in a situation where we’re going to get D.O.E. waste and there’s not anything anybody can do about it.”

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST
Top