Dr. E. G. Wermund of the Bureau of Economic Geology Looking for a nuclear dump Ruckus in Randall County By Carroll Wilson Canyon A small band of Randall County environmentalists is tiptoe ing around a local battleground where the first skirmishes have been fought over whether geologic formations deep below their feet will be the depository for millions of gallons of high-level radioactive wastes. That anti-nuclear forces have to tiptoe in this Panhandle county is nothing new, but this time their caution is inspired by fear of losing many willing but unexpected allies who preceded them in the attempt to keep the extremely toxic nuclear garbage off their turf. And that is a flabbergasting state of affairs in this corner of Texas where nuclear weapons have been assembled quietly for 30 years \(Obs., Concorde is welcomed with open arms, and a lost military Ares, ence is still widely mourned. The U.S. Department of Energy needs a place to store permanently the radioactive byproducts of commercial reactors and nuclear weapons production, byproducts that will be dangerously toxic for a quarter of a million years. And the ancient salt domes of the Palo Duro Basin here are a prime candidate for the job \(Obs., But the Randall County Commissioners Court which governs this sprawling area that includes the city of Canyon and the southern half of Amarilloone of the state’s most conservativehas actually taken on the colors of a people’s 8 MARCH 16, 1979 advocate. It has assumed the lead in telling the federal contractors evaluating the salt domes for DOE to find another place to dump the nuclear wastes. Whether the county will succeed in driving them out remains to be seenindeed, it has lost the first legal set-to. But the war is just beginning. Its origins go back about two years, when the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology contracted to study a 28county area in the Panhandle for suitable disposal sites. Shortly thereafter, in June 1977, DOE and bureau officials came to Amarillo at the invitation of local State Rep. Bob Simpson to tell the public their plans. Among the things they announced was that they would drill test holes to retrieve core samples to determine the nature of the subsurface strata. But none of this concerned the Randall County commissioners until last July, when the bureau actually began to drill at one of its rural test hole sites, just a dozen miles southeast of Amarillo. The commissioners didn’t go to the 1977 meeting and had never connected the bureau’s Randall County activities with a DOE search for a nuclear storage site. They didn’t know why the drilling rig was there until the local news media disclosed its purpose. The drilling permits were, it seems, operating under normal procedures for oil and gas exploration something that didn’t alarm Randall countians. They had not, however, considered the idea of maybe sharing their land with a nuclear dump. In a matter of days, area farmers were angry and scared. One of them was Ed Harrell, whose family has owned ranchland in the county since it was first settled at the turn of the century. Harrell, a soft-spoken farmer of devout faith and few words, was soon offering to lead a group of citizens to protest the drilling rig. Another was Dr. Zell SoRelle, a well-respected long-time professor of speech at West Texas State University in Canyon not previously known as a public agitator. Still another was Marcia Reed, who lives with her husband and two teenage children across the road from the rig, and told a Dallas Times Herald reporter, “We have sort of reached a point where if I had a keg of dynamite, and I thought I could get away with it, I’d . just blast that thing away.” By early August, the rural landowners had gathered about 300 signatures on a petition to the county commissioners to stop the drilling. But the officials were already fuming. OneDee Griffin, a South Amarillo insurance agenthad even been consulting on this with Environmental Protection Agency staffers before the petitions arrived. Two meetings were soon held to air concerns, which as far as the commissioners court was concerned, officially boiled down to these two: Location of a nuclear waste dump near Amarillo would repel industry and stymie growth. Location of a nuclear waste dump near Amarillo might be a health hazard and might eventually lead to contamination of the \(-1area’s vitally important underground waterthe precious little of it that’s left, that is. Similar worries were expressed by other local officials, but these were not their only concerns. One of the most prominent of the others was often mentioned in private: their traditional suspicion of the federal government. As one commissioner confided, “I resent them coming in here without so much as a kiss-my-tail or anything.” But whatever the reasons, the commissioners knew they wanted no radioactive garbage dumped in Randall County. Enter Rick Wilcox, then an assistant district attorney and an outspoken critic of nuclear energy. He advised them to ask the state district court for an injunction to stop the core drilling. He warned them that in environmental casesparticularly if they get into the federal courtsthe plaintiffs often lose standing and hence their cases because they have failed to fight proposals and projects to the limit at each step of their development. Fight them now, Wilcox counseled, and they will know that you intend to fight them every step of the way. Fight them now and you stand a better chance of keeping the protests alive in the courts.