Harold Simmons' company wins radioactive waste permission

12:00 AM CST on Thursday, January 15, 2009

By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News
rloftis@dallasnews.com / The Dallas Morning News
Elizabeth Souder contributed to this report.

Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons won a decade-long battle to dispose of radioactive waste in West Texas when state regulators on Wednesday granted a license for his company's Andrews County facility.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a request by Simmons' Waste Control Specialists LLC for permanent disposal of low-level radioactive waste from Texas and Vermont two states with a compact governing their waste and from federal sources.

Chairman Buddy Garcia and Commissioner Bryan Shaw voted to approve the license. Commissioner Larry Soward abstained.

"WCS and the citizens of Andrews and Lea [N.M.] counties and the Permian Basin have been waiting for this day for many years," company chief executive officer William J. Lindquist said after the vote. "The state of Texas will now be able to meet its obligations to the power plants, hospitals, universities, research institutes and other industrial generators" that need the facility, he said.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter, said the commissioners' decision put the public at risk. He said the club would consider suing to block the license.

"The agency and commissioners by their action are approving the nation's largest commercial radioactive waste site when basic facts about the site are still inadequately understood," Reed said. "They had nothing to lose and everything to gain by granting us the opportunity to prove in court that the site is inadequate and potentially dangerous."

The site will become a permanent graveyard for contaminated materials such as tools, clothing, instruments, cleaning compounds and other items from nuclear power plants, medical facilities and other sources. It does not include highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants, which the U.S. Energy Department wants to ship to its proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

Despite its name, low-level radioactive waste poses a health risk to people without proper handling and disposal.

The Simmons plan won support from political and business leaders in Andrews County, on the New Mexico state line between Lubbock and El Paso. They argued that the facility would provide 75 new jobs and posed no threat to the environment.

Environmental groups opposed the plan, saying the state had not adequately investigated earthquake dangers, risks to groundwater and other concerns. They also predicted that under pressure from waste generators, Texas would eventually let the facility take waste from any state.

Other low-level facilities are in Barnwell, S.C.; Clive, Utah; and Richland, Wash. Each limits the type or origin of waste it accepts, leaving Texas generators with few options. At the same time, proposed new nuclear power plants, including six or more new reactors possible in Texas, are expected to boost disposal demand.

Waste Control Specialists, a subsidiary of Simmons' Dallas-based Valhi Inc., already has a license for permanent disposal of other types of hazardous and radioactive waste including some Cold War nuclear weapons byproducts at its 12-year-old facility. WCS president Rodney Baltzer predicted that the state license would boost annual revenue from $10 million to $100 million.

Simmons, the 77-year-old Valhi chairman, is one of Texas' biggest donors to political candidates, mostly Republicans. He personally gave nearly $3.83 million to Texas politicians or party organizations from 2000 through 2008, campaign disclosures show. That does not include money spent on lobbying.

Waste Control Specialists' state license stemmed from two major victories for Simmons. In 1998, state environmental commissioners rejected a proposed state-owned and operated low-level waste facility in Hudspeth County that had sparked protest.

That left the door open for Simmons' venture, but only if the Legislature would allow private companies to operate a low-level waste facility. The Legislature voted to allow that in 2003.

When the application period closed the next year, only Waste Control Specialists had applied.

Staff writer Elizabeth Souder contributed to this report.