What a Dump

What Does Gov. Bush Have Buried in West Texas?

by Nate Blakeslee

photograph by Alan Pogue

On the first Thursday of February, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Jesus F. Reyes-Heroles, paid a visit to Austin to meet with governor George W. Bush. They met to discuss the state's plan - endorsed by the governor - to construct a radioactive waste dump less than 20 miles from the Rio Grande, near the tiny West Texas town of Sierra Blanca. As luck would have it, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) convened a press conference in Washington, D.C. that very same Thursday to discuss the very same project. In Austin, the governor assured the ambassador that the dump would not be a threat to the low-income border community chosen for the site, nor would it endanger the watershed of the Rio Grande, a source of drinking and agricultural water for many thousands of Mexicans and Texans. In Washington, Wellstone called the dump part of a "national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution" that preyed on those lacking political clout and financial resources. The senator described how entire nuclear reactors would be dismantled and shipped - from as far away as New England - to the tiny border town in Texas. Bush told the ambassador about a place to bury used X-ray machines piling up in El Paso hospitals. Clearly, someone is not telling the truth about what's going on in the governor's backyard.

This much is certain: For several months, Wellstone has held up a proposed agreement currently awaiting ratification by the U.S. Senate, under which Texas will act as the host state for low-level radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants, industrial facilities, and hospitals in - of all places - the states of Maine and Vermont. In exchange, Texas will receive $50 million for construction of the Sierra Blanca facility, plus, of course, a dump for its own nuclear waste. When questioned about the deal, the governor is quick to point out that the plan was originally hatched under the administration of former Gov. Ann Rich-ards. Nevertheless, since 1995 perhaps no single entity among the many interested parties has lobbied as hard as the office of George W. Bush to get the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact bill, now in its third attempt at passage, through Congress.

Although many have tried, no state has succeeded in licensing a new radioactive waste dump since Congress created the compact system in 1980, under which states must take responsibility for their own low-level waste or enter into compacts, whereby one state agrees to take the waste generated by another. It should be noted that the term "low-level" is somewhat deceptive. Dump proponents - the governor included - have made the most of the considerable confusion surrounding what will actually end up in the Sierra Blanca dump. Although industry spokespersons like to refer to low-level waste as mostly "gloves and booties" used in medical facilities, the category also includes virtually all power plant waste except spent fuel rods. In fact, according to industry estimates, about 85% of low-level waste - measured by radioactivity - comes from power plants, and the so-called "low-level" waste stream - as even Texas' own waste authority director has conceded - can actually include some of the most deadly isotopes known, such as iodine-129, nickel-59, and plutonium-239, with hazardous lives measured in the hundreds or thousands of millennia. With only two facilities in the nation - in Hanford, Washington and Barnwell, South Carolina - currently receiving all types of low-level waste (and no facility for high-level waste), bringing the Texas dump on-line would be a major coup for the nuclear industry - and they'd have Bush to thank.

But that may not be the only nuclear notch on the governor's belt. A second West Texas facility, this one in Andrews County near the New Mexico border, may soon begin receiving radioactive waste as well. Waste Control Specialists (WCS), a private company owned in part by billionaire Bush backer and friend Harold Simmons of Dallas, is well on its way - apparently thanks in part to the governor's appointees in the state regulatory apparatus - to becoming a repository for Department of Energy radioactive waste. Low-level DOE waste, industry flacks agree, is a multi-billion dollar industry that has yet to be tapped; WCS officials say they stand to make "Bill Gates-type money" on the Andrews County dump.

"Protecting" Texas

In letters to the Texas Congressional delegation, and in press releases and interviews, the governor has consistently maintained that the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact, which creates an exclusive-use agreement among the three states, is the only way to protect Texas from being forced to take waste from all over the country. But as Diane D'Arrigo of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) points out, "nobody can force you to build a dump." In fact, after years of litigation and public opposition, other multi-state compacts have recently abandoned their efforts to site dumps. And the Texas Attorney General's office disputes Bush's interpretation as well. "It has always been our position that Texas could build a dump for itself and have it remain a stand-alone facility," says Sam Goodhope of the AG's office. In any event, the "protection" offered by the compact is less than reassuring: Not only can other states be added to the compact in the future, but the agreement sets up a governor-appointed commission that can contract with any generator, anywhere, anytime, to take waste from non-party states, without congressional or state legislature approval.

Indeed, there are already indications that non-compact waste may be headed for Texas. Just prior to the compact's approval by the House last October, the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company announced that it wanted out of the deal because of its decision to decommission its unreliable reactor - the only one in Maine - 10 years ahead of schedule, which would require immediate disposal space that Texas could not provide. Yet under the terms of the compact, Maine is obligated to chip in $25 million for the Sierra Blanca dump - whether they still need it or not - as soon as the compact is ratified. In order to keep Maine - and its all important dump construction funds - on board, Bush cut an eleventh-hour deal with Governor Angus King Jr. of Maine. According to a letter signed by all three compact governors, Texas will make "reasonable efforts" to ensure that Maine ratepayers don't pay twice to decommission Maine Yankee. Roy Coffee of the governor's Office of State and Federal Relations insists that such efforts will not include allowing Maine to sublease its space in the Sierra Blanca dump to non-compact states. But it's hard to see how Maine could make its money back otherwise, and both Maine and Vermont are fighting to remove an amendment (placed on the House version of the compact by Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett) that would permanently limit use of the dump to just the three states in the compact.

Opponents of the Sierra Blanca dump, a truly diverse coalition that ranges from, for example, conservative property-rights groups in West Texas to environmental activists in Mexico City, have filed a Title VI civil rights complaint against the state. It alleges that the state - frustrated after eight years of fruitless searching for a suitable site and an amenable host community - deliberately targeted a minority population to minimize political opposition to the site. Located in one of the poorest counties in Texas, Sierra Blanca is a low-income, predominantly Mexican-American community, a fact not lost on the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA). The Authority commissioned a study back in 1984 as part of its effort to locate its radioactive dump site. Authors of the study recommended targeting special populations such as "Hispanics, particularly those with little formal education and low incomes," but cautioned against "increasing the level of knowledge" of those same Hispanics too much, lest they turn against the dump like everyone else. Further boosting opponents' claims is the site's less than ideal geography - only 16 miles from the Rio Grande, in an active earthquake zone, and above an aquifer.

Promise Them Anything

When Gov. Bush first announced his support for the compact, shortly after he took office in early 1995, he did so with the promise that he would protect Texas from the nation's nuclear dumpers. That promise was quickly put to the test when Waste Control Specialists (WCS) announced their plan to open the Andrews County dump, and immediately set about lobbying the legislature to repeal the Texas law prohibiting private companies from disposing of radioactive waste. This was quickly followed by a bid from Envirocare, a Utah-based disposal firm, to do the same thing on another piece of Texas ranch land, also in Andrews County. A May 1995 governor's office internal memo summed up the situation bluntly: Did the governor have the "willingness to stand by while West Texas becomes the nation's dumping ground for waste that no one else will take?"

The answer, apparently, depends on which company is doing the dumping. By the fall of 1996, WCS had switched to seeking DOE waste, a strategic maneuver which would have made them exempt from state oversight - though they voluntarily sought the approval of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Not to be outdone, Envirocare immediately followed suit. In an October 18, 1996 letter to Envirocare, TNRCC executive director Dan Pearson rejected their application, stating that the agency did not have the statutory authority to license a private facility, and further, that as a matter of policy, the agency would be opposed to "any scenario or arrangement" that involved state oversight of a private disposal facility regardless of where the waste originated. This prompted a hasty response from an understandably anxious WCS, who still sought TNRCC approval for the same purpose. On the week of December 5, Roy Coffee of the governor's office met with Barry McBee, the Bush-appointed chairman of TNRCC, to discuss the Envirocare letter. On Dec. 13, Dan Pearson sent a letter to WCS in which he issued a carefully worded retreat from his October letter, noting that, contrary to what he had told Envirocare, state oversight of a DOE facility was at least a legal feasibility, one that would require a policy decision from the three TNRCC commissioners, all Bush appointees. This was all the green light WCS needed to go full-speed ahead in search of DOE contracts.

What did WCS have that Envirocare didn't? One big factor may have been investor Harold Simmons, whose holding company, Valhi, Inc., bought a 50% stake in the company in late 1995. According to the Dallas Morning News, Bush and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock received over $170,000 between 1994 and June of 1996 from Simmons, WCS president Ken Bigham, and WCS board member and lobbyist (and former U.S. Congressman) Kent Hance. Hance and Simmons kicked in at least another $25,000 in 1997. "I basically told George that I was involved in the company as a major investor," Simmons told the Morning News, "and I wanted him to be aware of it in case the issue ever came up." Having Simmons on board should hardly encourage the residents of Andrews County - the notorious corporate raider has been named in numerous environmental lawsuits, and several former operations run by Simmons companies are now Superfund cleanup sites.

What Price Waste?

So what's in this for Bush, besides the support of ethically challenged Dallas tycoons? Well, Department of Energy waste in Texas could be for Bush what Arkansas-based Tyson Foods was for then-governor Clinton - a home-state economic miracle at the right time can really boost a presidential bid. But plutonium isn't chicken wings, and Bush's glad-handing of WCS could prove to be something of a Pandora's box. In November 1997, WCS sued a reluctant DOE in an attempt to force its way into the waste market, and struck gold when a U.S. district judge ruled that the lack of a state permit cannot be grounds for withholding DOE waste contracts. The National Governor's Association was outraged at this apparent usurpation of a state's right to regulate dumping within its borders. But Bush, who's been known to sing the state's rights anthem himself, just threw up his hands. "Texas has no role in any decision that the DOE would make - it is out of our hands," Bush spokesperson Debbie Head told the Houston Business Journal.

Despite considerable public opposition, the Sierra Blanca dump may pay dividends for the governor as well. For a man with his sights set on the White House, there are worse friends to have than the nuclear industry, which includes, for example, reactor component manufacturers like General Electric, a powerful multinational that controls a major television network (NBC) to boot. In fact, Bush has always been tight with the nuclear industry in Texas - especially with nuke operators Texas Utilities and Houston Lighting and Power. Diane Allbaugh, the wife of Bush's top aide, Joe Allbaugh, lobbied on behalf of Texas Utilities (she later stopped lobbying for TU under criticism), and two former top aides, Reggie Bashur and Cliff Johnson, left the governor's office to lobby for utility companies. In 1996, Bush backed a bill that would have helped Texas Utilities and HL&P pass on bloated construction costs for their reactors to Texas ratepayers. The bill didn't pass, but Bush's endorsement was enough to make Texas Utilities' wilting stock rebound heartily. Both companies also desperately want the Sierra Blanca dump - a cheaper and more reliable alternative to dumping their waste at Barnwell, South Carolina. The governor's hard work in this department has paid off - TU alone has donated over $40,000 in Bush's first term.

Now Bush appears to be courting the national nuclear industry as well. In all likelihood the Sierra Blanca dump, if opened, will become not just New England's, but the entire nation's next nuclear waste dump for decades to come. The availability of disposal space is vital to the future of the domestic nuclear industry, a reality explained in the somewhat ominously titled annual publication of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Strategic Plan for Building New Nuclear Power Plants. Accordingly, the nuclear industry has cheered Bush's attempts to get the compact passed in Washington. Bush's staff has been joined by the Nuclear Energy Institute, along with directors of other radwaste compacts (most of whom have no site of their own), and lobbyists from utilities in Maine, Vermont, and Texas in rallying support for the bill.

And the governor's efforts appear to be paying dividends in this department as well. In the last six months, Bush has received out-of-state contributions from Duke Power, Southern Company, and Entergy Corporation, all of whom own or operate nuclear power plants in the South, and all of which appear likely to be interested in using the Sierra Blanca site. Entergy's overtures to Bush seem to be in direct proportion to the fizzling of their own waste plans involving a proposed compact facility in Nebraska, which now seems unlikely ever to be built. Southern Company subsidiary Southern Nuclear operates three plants that currently dump at Barnwell, South Carolina, but spokesperson Rick Kimball says they would consider using the Texas dump if fees were lower there. Because of an ongoing dispute between the two Carolinas over North Carolina's failure to build a new dump, Duke Power has been forced to store waste on-site at its North Carolina plants. These are three of the largest corporations in the South, companies whose major investors include some of the world's most powerful multinationals and global banks. Big enough friends, maybe, to get young George to the White House, and more than enough enemies for a tiny border community in West Texas.

This story first appeared in The Nation.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle