Texas Observer

Company Town

May 15, 2009

If a billionaire came to town and asked you and your neighbors for $75 million to build him a radioactive waste dump near two local aquifers, you’d probably run him out of town, right?

If so, you’re not from Andrews County.

On May 9, by a tiny three-vote margin, the voters of Andrews County approved $75 million in bonds to build a recently licensed, low-level radioactive waste dump. (Anti-bond group No Bonds for Billionaires is considering a recount request.)

The company behind the dump, Waste Control Specialists LLC, is owned by Dallas-based tycoon Harold Simmons through parent company Valhi Inc. Even after a $3 billion loss in the economic downturn, Simmons is still worth $3.9 billion, according to a Forbes estimate.

Simmons may have lost almost half his net worth, but he still managed to scrape together more than $362,000 to spend on political campaigns, mostly Republican, in the last half of 2008.

So where does the 146th-richest man in the world get off asking Andrews County (with a poverty rate of 16 percent, above the national average) to underwrite his waste scheme?

“We just think it’s a good time to be cautious, and we’re being cautious,” Simmons told The Dallas Morning News in April, speaking generally about his business holdings.

For Waste Control, the economic crisis “could not have come at a worse time,” said CEO Bill Lindquist in a video on AndrewsBondElection.com, a pro-bond Web site built for Waste Control by an Austin PR firm that touts its success in “grassroots outreach.”

With credit markets frozen, the company says it had to seek taxpayer-backed financing. “[T]he citizens of Andrews have always been there and we have greatly appreciated the support we have gotten,” Lindquist said in the video.

Voters might have been confused about what they were voting on. The ballot refers to a “solid waste disposal facility,” commonly called a garbage dump; no mention is made of radioactive waste. Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club calls the ballot language “horribly misleading.”

Waste Control covered the election costs, which, according to the county, are expected to be $5,000 to $7,500.

Waste Control says there is no risk to taxpayers. The $75 million will purchase equipment and build dump facilities [on land] that will be owned by the county, but leased back to Waste Control. As collateral, the company is pledging stock and assets worth $500 million. It’s quite a deal. Except that if the company goes bankrupt, Andrews County will be left with little more than a hole in the ground filled with radioactive waste.

—Forrest Wilder