Economic diversification battles water table concerns
by Ruth Campbell
Published: Sunday, September 14, 2008 10:54 PM CDT
ANDREWS -- Amid all the facts, figures and technical jargon that dominated a recent Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing on granting Waste Control Specialists LLC a disposal license for low-level radioactive material, there were few dissident voices.
Many of the 400-plus inside Andrews High School's Little Theater support the low-level radioactive waste license. But there were still concerns posed by a handful of people about site stability, whether the waste would leak into the water table, how long it would stay radioactive, whether proper safety measures were being taken and whether WCS will pay if -- and when -- the site is shut down.
TCEQ requires that certain conditions be met before the disposal facility can be built and WCS officials say the site is drier than they initially thought. They say stringent safety measures are in place, the site is geologically stable and material going down the highway is tightly sealed and follows U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.
The site, in far western Andrews County near the Lea County, N.M. line, currently stores waste from the U.S. Department of Energy and other sources, said WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald of Austin.
If the disposal license is granted, it will receive waste from the Texas-Vermont, which will include radioactive clothing, booties, cloth, tools, paper and parts from nuclear power plants that have reached the end of their life. No spent fuel rods will be taken, a spokesman said.
WCS also would take soils and concrete from federal clean up of U.S. Department of Energy facilities and the contaminated ground around them, company President Rod Baltzer said.
Baltzer said the company is not storing much waste from the Texas-Vermont compact currently, but will receive more if it gets the disposal license. Medical waste also will be taken for disposal.
The majority of the volume of disposal waste will come from nuclear power pants, however, the main generators will be hospitals, univeristies and smallbusinesses.
The waste would be encased in concrete containers and placed in pits with liners on the bottom and top, McDonald said.
The disposal license would be good for 15 years and permit 2.3 million cubic feet of Texas-Vermont compact waste and 26 million cubic feet of DOE waste. The life of the facility is estimated at 35 years.
WCS in August awarded a three-year, $80 million contract to URS Corp. of San Francisco, Calif., to lead design and construction of new permanent disposal facilities and infrastructure improvements at the site.
The new facilities will enable WCS to begin operations under its license -- issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in May -- to dispose of radioactive byproduct material.
WCS President Rod Baltzer said one of the positive points about the Waste Control site is its isolation and that it was chosen based on good science. From hundreds of borings for soil samples and test wells, officials have said they discovered the site is drier than originally thought and the red bed clay found in most of the site is impermeable.
There is a layer of sand and gravel the company calls OAG, but moisture doesn't penetrate the red bed clay beneath. So water can sit in the OAG formation in puddles for a long period of time, Baltzer said in an e-mail. The "O" in the acronym does not stand for Ogallala aquifer.
The OAG formation will be completely excavated from the landfills as part of construction. Disposal of the low-level waste will only occur within the red bed clays, beneath the sand and gravel formations.
The nearest aquifer is the Trujillo Formation, which is approximately 600 feet below the surface. The company has "conservatively" used a saturated sandstone at 225 feet below the surface as its first monitoring zone.
This zone produces only a few gallons of water per quarter for sampling purposes, Baltzer said. "The red bed clays are very dense and confine any moisture in the 225 foot zone. Water from the zone was age dated to 16,000 years old and drilling data has shown the water hasn't moved inches above or below that zone," he said.
Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter Conservation Director Cyrus Reed of Austin said the organization will ask for a contested case hearing -- like a civil trial before an administrative law judge. But he thinks the TCEQ will deny its request and grant the license.
If this happens, Reed said, the Sierra Club will file with state district court in Travis County to have TCEQ overturn its decision and grant the hearing. The draft license was issued Aug. 13, and under state law passed in 2003, the whole process has to be complete by August 2009.
Reed said Sierra Club's concerns are related to the idea that "even after three notices of administrative deficiency on the original application, two notices of technical deficiency on the technical review of application, a separate list of concerns compiled by TCEQ responded to by WCS and a 20,000-page license application, TCEQ issued a draft disposal license saying it wanted more study before construction can begin.
"Here we are in September 2008 about to give a license to what will be the largest commercial, low-level radioactive waste site in the country and there are still data gaps and issues of uncertainty about where top of saturation zones are, to what extent fractures are an issue underneath sites where they would take waste and the precise depth of water table," Reed said.
"It's unbelievable those basic questions wouldn't be completely answered to make sure the site is safe."
Midland pathologist Terry Burns, who attended the Sept. 8 hearing, said he was satisfied with the answers but not the way the project is progressing and the reasons for it.
"The project is predicated on the idea of expanding nuclear power in this country. They use medical waste as an example, but in fact medical waste is a tiny example. This is all about nuclear energy," Burns said.
"I don't believe nuclear energy is either clean or safe. We wouldn't be talking about things (being radioactive) for thousands of years. It produces carbon dioxide emissions with all of these trucks running around delivering it and building these plants and the plants have had accidents.
"People have been exposed and developed cancer and other things because of the exposure. There are a lot of cheaper and easier ways to conserve energy and have real clean energy like the wind farms in West Texas. They're better for the ranchers and better for our children in the future," Burns added.
Rose Gardner of Eunice, N.M., which sits near a uranium enrichment facility and WCS, said she's concerned about water contamination, no matter what company geologists say.
"It's possible there are cracks or fissures in the soil and even though that red bed is there, I'm worried about water contamination. If there's water there that could potentially be used in the future, it needs to be kept as free and uncontaminated as we can keep it even though we may not be around," Gardner said.
She added that the "way things are going," future generations aren't being taken into consideration. "I've been in this for five years on and off and nothing has ever made me question why I question them.
"There's a lot of corruption going on here. I don't think our kids and grandkids should suffer because of what they're doing now," Gardner said.
Still, there is strong support for WCS in Eunice. When Sept. 8 audience members were asked by co-founder and part WCS owner Kent Hance who supported Waste Control, all but a few stood up. Hance is chancellor of Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
Andrews Economic Development Corp. Director Wesley Burnett said job impact is the biggest community asset. If the disposal license is granted, it will mean another 100 jobs.
"That correlates into more investment into our community," Burnett said. "These are all good, well-paying jobs. They've been a huge community supporter. This will reinforce that. Having a good, solid company in our community gives us leg up on (economic) diversification."
International Isotopes also is looking at Andrews for a possible site. The Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company is into nuclear medicine reference and calibration standards, cobalt and radiochemical and fluorine extraction process products and radiological processing services.
Burnett said the firm is looking at locating a deconversion business and recycling products. It's expected to make follow-up visits in October, narrow its possibilities to two or three sites and make a decision by early 2009.
International Isotopes would spend some $50 million on the project, creating 100 construction jobs and 50-60 permanent, full-time positions.
Burnett said nothing is ever guaranteed in the licensing process, but with Andrews' community support, it's likely TCEQ will make the "right decision."
"This has been a long process for company and community," Burnett said. "We are cautiously optimistic."
Ruth Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Waste Control Specialists site is 31 miles west of Andrews and six miles east of Eunice, N.M. -- just east of the Texas-New Mexico line and a mile north of Texas 176.
WCS Inc., started in 1992 and received its first hazardous waste permit two years later.
In 1995, the name was changed to Waste Control Specialists LLC because Ken Bigham, who had started the company, joined Harold Simmons of Dallas, chief executive officer of Valhi Inc. Since then, Valhi has bought out Bigham.
Construction began in December 1995. It opened and took its first hazardous waste in February 1997. Since 1995, WCS has $80,000 in community donations to the Permian Basin and has a $7.5 million payroll.
WCS applied for a storage and processing license in March 1996 and got a low-level radioactive waste license in November 1997 for storage and processing. It took its first radioactive waste for storage in February 1998.
In August 2004, the company submitted a low-level radioactive waste disposal license to the state. A draft license was issued Aug. 13.
WCS applied for a byproduct license in June 2004 and got it in May 2008.
The company owns 15,000 acres in Andrews County and its permitted for waste operations on 1,300.
Source: WCS President Rod Baltzer, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Web site
From TCEQ Director of communications Andy Saenz:
The financial assurance amounts are as follows --
-$79,912,000 decommissioning and closure
-$10,256,000 post-operation surveillance
-$21,000,000 institutional controls
-$25,300,000 corrective action
If granted, the waste disposal license will be good for 15 years. The company will have a letter of credit for the amount. This money will pay for closure of the site if the company chooses not to renew the license and the site becomes property of the state.
Different classes of waste are:
- Class A waste is usually segregated from other waste classes at the disposal site.
- Class B must meet more rigorous requirements on waste form to ensure stability after disposal.
- Class C waste is supposed to meet more rigorous requirements on waste form to ensure stability, but it also requires additional measures at the disposal facility to protect against inadvertent intrusion. It takes the longest to break down.
- Waste not generally acceptable for near-surface disposal is that for which form and disposal methods must be different, and in general more stringent, than those specified for Class C waste. Disposal of this waste is regulated by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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