Texas radioactive waste disposal company seeking break from state fees and surcharges
At issue is whether Texas could become the disposal site for high-level radioactive waste.
AUSTIN — Depending on who is interpreting it, legislation moving closer to a vote in the Texas House and Senate would either shut the door to the state ever becoming home to high-level radioactive waste or carve at a path to bring it in.
Two separate but similar bills – one in the House and the other in the Senate – seek to lower state fees and surcharges imposed on a company called Waste Control Specialists that operates a storage and disposal site in Andrews County, near Texas' border with New Mexico.
The site houses low-level radioactive waste from facilities such as nuclear power plants, sundry industries and from health care facilities that use x-ray and radiation therapy for care of their patients.
How much would the disposal sites cost?
Waste Control Specialists says it needs the financial breaks that would cost the state about $1.4 million a year to remain competitive. But environmental groups opposing both bills argue that the breaks would leave Texas short of money in the event WCS should go belly up and taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for managing the site for centuries into the future.
The environmentalists have an unlikely ally in one of Andrews County's oldest traditional energy companies and its largest private landowner, Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd.
The legislation's chief authors. Odessa Republican Brooks Landgraf in the House and Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, in the Senate, say it contains safeguards to prohibit high-level radioactive waste from ever being shipped to Andrews County for disposal.
"A person, including the compact waste disposal facility license holder, may not dispose of or store high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel in this state," a section in both bills reads.
Landgraf's version, House Bill 2692, has passed out of committee and is awaiting placement on the full House's calendar. Committee consideration of the Senate version, S.B. 1046, could come as soon as Thursday.
Are West Texas drilling operations at risk?
Several people testifying during House and Senate committee meetings on behalf of environmental groups said the definition of "person" could be subject to wide interpretation. So did Tommy Taylor, an executive with Fasken Oil and Ranch.
And if high-level radioactive waste should somehow find its way to Andrews County, which is part of the oil-rich Permian Basin that stretches from Texas to New Mexico, Taylor said it could jeopardize the safety of drilling operations and decimate the fossil fuel industry and the Texas economy.
This (the oil and gas industry) is a significant source of income for Texas and (vital for) the security of our nation," Taylor said.
What worries the legislation's opponents is that WCS has an application pending before the federal Nuclear Regulatory Committee to build and operate a high-level waste facility in Andrews County. A federal permit would likely trump a state ban on such waste.
Former state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat and now part of the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness, said WCS cannot argue on one hand that its financial position is so precarious that it needs a break on state fees and on the other hand tell the NRC it has the means to build a state-of-the-art waste disposal site in West Texas.
"These guys perpetually cry wolf and plead poverty," Burnam said. "This company is not at risk of going under."
But WCS President David Carlson told the Senate Natural Resources Committee that a company in Nevada with lower operating costs is well-positioned to outcompete his firm for low-level waste disposal. He said the Andrews County site is also very expensive to operate.
"This is the most protected low-level radioactive waste site that's ever been built," Carlson said.
Texas governor among opponents
Among opponents of WCS's permit application before the NRC is Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who said it would leave Texas vulnerable.
"According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the cargo currently shipped on rail lines through the Permian Basin consists primarily of oilfield commodities such as drilling mud, hydrochloric acid, fracking sand, pipe, and petroleum products, including crude oil, as well as iron and steel scrap," Abbott said in a Nov. 3 letter to the NRC.
"There are also significant agricultural commodities. In the event of a rail accident or derailment, even absent a radiological release, the resources and logistics required to address such an accident would severely disrupt the transportation of oilfield and agricultural commodities, to the detriment of the entire country."
Asked by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, if WCS would consider withdrawing its federal application to satisfy bipartisan concerns, Carlson replied, "No, ma'am."
Supporters of the legislation, including Republican Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, noted that Texas is obligated by state and federal law to safely dispose of low-level radioactive waste and that Andrews County is the chosen site.
Nearly every community with a hospital or a dentist office, not to mention those with defense industry and other plants, contribute to that waste stream, they said.
Finally, Andrews County officials said in testimony that a profitable WCS is vital to the remote region's economic health. Local taxes and fees pay for parks, ambulances and recreational projects countywide, said Morse Haynes of the Andrews Economic Development corporation.
"They're great corporate citizens," Haynes said.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.