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SHARON STEWART Entrance to Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site at Fort Hancock Low-Level Threat BY STEPHEN FENBERG LOW-LEVEL” RADIOACTIVE waste of the type apparently destined for burial in West Texas could cor rectly be classified as “lower-level.” It is not as radioactive as, say, weapons-grade plutonium or fuel rods from reactors. But it’s not as benign as the compound adjective suggests. Ninety nine percent of low-level radioactive waste comes from nuclear reactors, according to a study conducted by the Radioactive Waste Campaign. The waste includes resins, liquids, waste containers, sludges, filters, soil and materials from settling ponds, fuel channels, control rods, pipes and metal surfaces that have been exposed to radiation, containment structures, and, entire deactivated nuclear reactors, with the exception of fuel rods. It is classifiedas lowlevel because it is not as hot as the sludges that remain after irradiated fuel is reprocessed, not as radioactive and the fuel itself. In other words, low level is something less than the most intensely radioactive and long-lived nuclear materials. But it is radioactive and until 1970 low-level radioactive waste produced in the United States was dumped at sea \(where it remains radioacstore the radioactive refuse generated by the nation’s power plants, hospitals, and research facilities. But by the late ’70s, three of them were closed because of leaks and contamination. In 1980, Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Act, which requires every state, by 1993, to either have built a waste facility or have signed a compact that provides access to a permitted low-level site in another state. So Texas set out to find a way to comply with the federal law, first establishing the Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority commonly referred to as the Authority and then deciding that Texas would build its own dump and neither export its waste nor accept waste from other states. “Other states thought they’d be overwhelmed by the amount of waste generated here and just were not willing to form a compact with Texas,” said Roger Moulder, special projects director in the Environmental Policy Division of Gov. Ann Richards’ office. Since this process began the Authority has selected several sites and each has been rejected, either by the Legislature or the courts. Most recently, in January of 1991, Judge William Moody of the 34th District Court in Hudspeth County, ruled in favor of El Paso and Hudspeth Counties in their suit against the Authority’s Stephen Fenberg is a freelance writer living in Damon, Texas. selection of Fort Hancock, in Hudspeth County in West Texas. The proposed site, plaintiffs contended, was located inthe only part of the state prone to earthquakes, on a 100-year flood plain only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, in a region where El Paso is likely to grow and within three miles of the Alamo Canyon Archaeological District, home of rare, historic cave drawings. It also threatened the area’s underground water supply, the only source of fresh water for more than one million people, industry and agriculture. Judge Moody obviously agreed. In his ruling he wrote: “The Fort Hancock site in its entirety is declared to be an unsuitable disposal site and, therefore, an illegal and ineligible disposable site as a matter of law.” Judge Moody’s decision was “reversed” soon after it was handed down, not by an appeals court but by the Legislature which quickly passed a bill introduced by Rep. Dan Shelley, R-Crosby. By directing the Authority to “select a disposal site, a site within Hudspeth County, Texas, and within a certain specific area described by latitude and longitude and generally speaking, being an area approximately 400 square miles in size, running both north and south of Interstate 10, from Sierra Blanca to Allamore, sometimes referred to as the ‘Box’,” Shelley’s House Bill 2665 amended Chapter 402 of the Health and Safety Code, which governs the Authority’s selection process. The region known as the Box is 30 miles from the Fort Hancock site rejected by Judge Moody. The Legislature’s circumvention of the courts concerns Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a former state representative and progressive Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is now a member of the Texas Nuclear Responsibility Network. According to Farenthold, when the Legislature passed Shelley’s bill it amended general law the Health and Safety Code by passing special legislation. That, according to Farenthold, is unconstitutional. She cites Article 3, Section 36 of the Texas Constitution, which states in part: “where a general law can be made applicable, no local or special law shall be enacted.” Gov. Richards, who on June 16, 1991, signed the Shelley bill into law, apparently does not consider it a local or special law. “Our view is simply that this legislation is of statewide significance, it’s far from a local issue,” said Moulder of the Governor’s office. S. Anthony Safi, an El Paso lawyer representing a family whose ranch adjoins the new site at Sierra Blanca, sees other problems with the process. In a letter to the governor, Safi argues that federal law directs states to study broad areas and to determine locations best suited for the disposal and storage of radioactive waste. The bill the governor signed into law, Safi contends, restricts consideration to a 400-square-mile area, less than two-tenths of one percent of the total land mass of Texas, and directs the Authority to find a “suitable site” rather than the “best site.” Another state law has altered the dynanmics of the site-selection process. When the Legislature, in 1987, asked the Authority to determine the desirability and feasibility of multi-state compacts, the House Environmental 14 MAY 8, 1992