State OKs plan to move hazardous waste through Metroplex

By Scott Streater

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Tons of radioactive waste from Ohio may soon be trucked through the Dallas- Fort Worth region on its way to a disposal and storage site in West Texas.

The state has approved a request by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists to expand the volume of low-level radioactive waste it can store at its plant in Andrews County, northwest of Midland on the New Mexico border.

Increasing the plant's storage capacity makes it eligible to receive tons of radioactive waste currently stored in concrete silos at a long-abandoned uranium-processing plant in Fernald, Ohio, near Cincinnati.

The federal government has been trying for years to remove the Fernald waste, in part because the concrete silos holding the waste are deteriorating, records show.

The Department of Energy is expected this month to approve transferring the waste to the West Texas site, said Gary Stegner, a spokesman for the agency, which owns the Fernald site.

When it does, an estimated 3,500 tanker trucks will transport the Fernald waste to the Andrews County site, he said. While no direct transport route has been decided, the trucks would almost certainly come through North Texas.

Interstate 20 is the only radioactive hazardous waste route in the Metroplex, said Dan Kessler, assistant director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

The Department of Energy has used great caution in transporting waste from the site in the past. It will require the tons of uranium material to be mixed with concrete and sealed in an estimated 7,000 metal containers so that it cannot spill if an accident occurs.

Critics say trucking the material across Texas is a dangerous idea.

"We're very concerned because we don't think the safety standards are there" for the trucks that would transport the waste, said Cyrus Reed, a registered lobbyist with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. "And given the fear about terrorist cells possibly stealing nuclear material, suddenly having all these trucks over our highways is of course a concern."

State officials say the uranium tailings -- finely ground contaminated sand left over from the chemical process to extract uranium -- would be encased in concrete and difficult to access.

Officials at Waste Control Specialists -- the only company licensed to handle radioactive waste in Texas -- could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Waste Control Specialists is owned by Dallas multimillionaire Harold Simmons. Former Republican Congressman Kent Hance also has had close ties to the company for years.

Waste Control eventually wants to permanently dispose of the uranium by burying it at its site and has applied for a separate state license to do so. A decision on that is not expected until the end of the year, said Richard Ratliff, a radiation program officer in the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The Waste Control permit is the latest development in the ongoing debate over the disposal of nuclear waste in Texas.

In May 2003, the Legislature approved a controversial bill that paved the way for consolidating waste from up to 60 storage sites nationwide in Texas. This has raised concerns among some that Texas could become the nation's nuclear waste dump.

The issue continues to be debated in the state Legislature.

Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat, has filed a bill to limit the amount of out-of-state radioactive waste that can be disposed in Texas. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, has introduced a House resolution creating a committee to study the radioactive waste issue and submit a report to the Legislature by January 2007.

The Fernald waste has a long and troubled history.

The plant opened in 1951 and for four decades produced high-purity uranium metal, mostly for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, demand for uranium dropped, and Congress closed the Fernald site.

Uranium waste has been stored at the site since 1952. The waste includes high concentrations of radium 226, a human carcinogen linked to bone and nasal cancer, as well as thorium, which is linked to lung cancer, according to federal records.

As recently as August, the Energy Department was pushing to bury the waste at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas.

Nevada officials rejected the request.

So did Utah in 2003 at its White Mesa uranium mill on the state's southeastern corner.

Now it's likely headed for Texas, a possibility that concerns state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, a vocal opponent of the Waste Control plan.

"We should be worried about the fact that the ultimate graveyard for most of the nation's nuclear waste is going to be in West Texas, and most of it is going to come through the Dallas-Fort Worth area," he said. "The only question is where and when is there going to be some sort of accident."

Scott Streater