Lone Star Sierra Club Sues to Void Uranium Waste License

AUSTIN, Texas, July 11, 2008 (ENS) - The Sierra Club has filed suit in state district court to overturn a decision by the state's environmental regulatory agency to grant a license for disposal of thousands of cubic feet of highly radioactive uranium waste material in far western Andrews County near the New Mexico border.

On May 21, the disposal license was issued to Waste Control Specialists, WCS, to bury 3,776 canisters of uranium waste that also contains uranium daughter products, radium and heavy metals such as lead and barium.

The lawsuit aims to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TCEQ, to grant a "contested case" hearing on the license to the Sierra Club and several residents of Eunice, New Mexico, whose requests for such a proceeding were denied by the state agency.

The Eunice residents, living five miles from the radioactive dump site, believe that the license conditions will not protect them from windblown radioactive debris, potential traffic accidents and the possibility of leakage into the underlying aquifer.

"The granting of a license to bury radioactive waste in West Texas without the public scrutiny that a contested case hearing would provide is one of the more egregious actions taken by the TCEQ Commissioners in recent months - and that's saying a lot," said Ken Kramer, state Sierra Club director.

"Given all of the concerns raised about the WCS license by former TCEQ staff who reviewed the application," said Kramer, "it seems that a majority of the state environmental commissioners were hoping to sweep things under the rug by issuing the license without a contested case hearing."

Pat Bobeck, a former TCEQ staff geologist who left the agency due to objections to the pending WCS licensing, attests that after years of application review and WCS efforts at improvements in the application, the applicant failed to adequately characterize the site.

"The application contained inconsistencies and contradictions and a lack of detailed geologic data," Bobeck noted. "There is water there in that clay and in the siltstone and water is going to move that waste around. It's going to cause problems and there's no way around that."

"We're taking this matter to court to make sure that the problems with the proposed burial get the attention they deserve," Kramer said.

On May 21, on a 2-1 vote, TCEQ Commissioner Bryan Shaw and Chairman Buddy Garcia voted in favor of granting the license and denying the hearing request.

Dissenting, Commissioner Larry Soward said that it would be in the agency's and the state's best interest to allow a hearing to proceed to make sure that there were no merits to the argument that the site is unsafe for burial of radioactive materials.

Sierra Club member and small business owner Rose Gardner traveled from her home in Eunice in May to attend the TCEQ meeting at which the decision was made to grant a license to dispose of radioactive waste to Waste Control Specialists.

"This stinks that the TCEQ has denied my right to a hearing about something so close to where my family lives and has been living for the past half a century. We should be able to contest that!" said Gardner.

"I don't believe this is a safe site. I think that the radioactive waste would filter down through the cracks and salt domes in that clay. It'll leach right down into our precious groundwater," said Gardner. "I am concerned about what this could mean for the health and well being of my family."

Containers of K-65 waste at Fernald [DoE photo]

The license allows WCS to bury uranium milling and mining waste, as well as so-called "K-65" waste, leftover highly-contaminated weapons waste that previously was stored in Fernald, Ohio.

K-65 wastes are the uranium mill tailings resulting from a uniquely concentrated 65 percent uranium ore discovered before World War II in the former Belgian Congo.

Because of a controversial decision by the U.S. Congress, the K-65 wastes were reclassified in 2003 as "11(e)(2)" byproduct materials.

The decision allowed the waste being stored at the Fernald site and at a similar storage site near Niagara Falls, New York to be disposed of at sites licensed for disposal of radioactive byproduct materials.

When the U.S. Department of Energy sought to bury these wastes at an EnergySolutions facility in Utah, the Utah Legislature was so concerned that it barred some of the waste from being imported.

Fernald experts recommended that the waste should be stablized by turning it into a glassy solid material as opposed to storing it in its present metal containers.

However the court rules, Texas will hear more from Waste Control; WCS also has an application pending with the commission for a low-level radioactive disposal license.

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