Andrews county Waste Control Specialists

WCS and Bush

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WCS This week, the Texas Toxic Tour takes you to Andrews County. Peggy Pryor lives in the City of Andrews, only 30 miles from mammoth pits dug into 1,300 acres above the Ogallala Aquifer that are slowly being filled with hazardous and radioactive waste. Watch a video interview with Peggy about the frustration she has suffered in attempting to stop Texas state agencies from turning her county into a de facto nuclear waste dump.

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Waste Control Specialists

"In West Texas, everybody thinks about tumbleweeds, but actually the first thing they notice is the smell, the smell is atrocious," explains Peggy. "It's from the gas wells, the gas and oil" we have flares, big open flames" sometimes we have huge flares, it looks like Andrews is on fire when you're driving toward it at night. But my main concern is radioactive waste and toxics."

Peggy and others are concerned with a Houston-based company called Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which in 1994 obtained federal and state permits to dispose of hazardous wastes at its 16,000 acre sire in Andrews County.(1) WCS assured residents in Andrews and other nearby towns during the permitting process that WCS had no intention of ever accepting radioactive waste. Former Congressman Kent Hance, then WCS spokesman, assured Peggy and others at a town meeting that "that's not the business we're in."(2)

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Featured in our interview is Peggy Pryor.

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Radioactive Waste--Where the Big Money Is

As WCS steadily lost money in the hazardous waste business, it became clear that thee company's plan was to enter the radioactive waste business. WCS stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars profit on not only nuclear power plant waste but also federal nuclear weapons waste.(3) In 1995 WCS introduced state legislation authorizing it to dispose of radioactive waste. When the controversial bill did not pass, WCS turned to other strategies for getting hold of the radioactive waste.

Harold Simmons--Corporate Raider to the Rescue

Enter Harold Simmons, Dallas billionaire and Republican fundraiser. Simmons infused WCS with $25 million when he bought half the company after the legislative failures in 1995.(4) Simmons hoped to make "significant profits" from the venture. "I don't think it's going to be any real fast gold mine. But it could be very productive and big business over a period of years."(5) Shortly thereafter, WCS filed an application with the Texas Department of Health to process and store radioactive waste. WCS also wrote a letter to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) asking for permission to permanently dispose of federal nuclear weapons waste at the Andrews dump.

Opposition Grows

Peggy and many others in the city of Andrews formed a group hoping to stop WCS from opening a radioactive waste dump near their homes and over the Ogallala--the largest aquifer in North America. The TNRCC and Health Department were also very cautious about licensing WCS for a nuclear waste dump.

Wesley Dunn, Deputy Director of Licensing of the Health Department's Bureau of Radiation Control, sent a terse five page rejection letter to WCS in 1996, stating that "the preliminary review has found [WCS's] submitted application to be severely deficient. It must be noted that the applicant is requesting authorization for one of the most complex and potentially hazardous activities the Agency has jurisdiction over...While miscommunications may occur in conversation, it is of concern that regulatory requirements and written guidance documents were not followed."

Similarly, TNRCC initially rejected WCS's request to dispose of nuclear weapons waste.

Money Talks

Unfortunately, Harold Simmons had by this time already given Governor Bush over $50,000 in campaign contributions.

In late 1996, the director of Bush's DC lobbying office, Roy Coffee, met with the chairman of the TNRCC to discuss the WCS-related waste issues. A week after the meeting, the TNRCC executive director sent a letter to WCS in which he issued a carefully worded retreat from the agency's earlier dismissal of WCS's request to dispose of federal nuclear weapons waste. This was all the green light WCS needed to go full speed ahead in search of DOE contracts."(6)

Many Andrews residents were discouraged by the reversal. "It's almost if you're a public citizen, you have to prove that this is wrong," says Peggy. "I always thought the TNRCC was an entity to tell us what was wrong."

When the time came for a public hearing on the waste processing and storage license from the Health Department, Peggy and other nearby residents attended a public meeting to formally request the hearing--the only legal challenge available to nearby residents. After being grilled by WCS and Health Department lawyers, Peggy left the witness stand in tears. She and the other residents were denied the right to a hearing. By 1997, the Health Department had granted WCS a license to store and process higher volumes of radioactive waste than any other licensee in Texas.

"I didn't know it was going to cost money to try and defend my rights as a citizen in this state, to voice my opinions, but believe me I've learned the only way to fight in Texas is to have the big high priced lawyers, to have the megabucks and to get knocked around a lot," says Peggy.

Simmons: Criminal Donations and Environmental Crimes

As of May 1999, Simmons had given Bush campaigns $810,000 and was the Bush presidential campaign's top donor.(7)

Simmons history as a big donor to Republican candidates is filled with illegal incidents. For example, Simmons admitted in civil court that he forged his two daughters' signatures to make political contributions from family trusts to various Republican candidates. Simmons has said that from 1991 to 1995 he made $110,000 in contributions to political action committees in his daughters' names and without their knowledge or permission. He later settled a lawsuit with them for $50 million.

Simmons' history with environmental laws is not much better. As the owner of a defunct Dallas lead smelter in the Cadillac Heights area that is responsible for alleged lead poisoning of the surrounding neighborhood, Simmons' company N.L. Industries has been the target of numerous class action and other suits claiming damages from dangerous lead emissions. The Cadillac Heights facility is now a federal Superfund site.

Despite repeated attempts in court and in the state legislature, WCS has still not been able to change Texas law barring private companies from disposing of radioactive waste. WCS has continuously lost money on its hazardous waste business, most recently reporting an operating loss of $5.1 million during the first quarter of 1999 and a loss of $1.6 million during the first quarter of 2000.(8)

WCS's 1999 financial filings illuminate the company's strategy for getting around the state prohibition on private nuclear waste dumping:

"While the legislative session ended without any change in state law, Waste Control Specialists has been pursuing other alternatives with respect to the disposal of low-level and mixed radioactive wastes, including obtaining certain modifications to its existing permits that would allow Waste Control Specialists to dispose of certain types of low-level and mixed radioactive wastes...Waste Control Specialists will continue to pursue permit modifications to further expand its treatment and disposal capabilities for low-level and mixed radioactive wastes. In addition, Waste Control Specialists currently expects to continue to support a change in state law, as discussed above, during the next Texas legislative session which begins in January 2001."(9)

How to Dispose of Radioactive Waste without a Permit

WCS has, with the help of state regulatory agencies, successfully converted its hazardous waste dump into a radioactive waste dump. Corporations and other states are taking advantage of exemptions granted to Texas companies and are turning Texas into a national dumping ground.

  • WCS has disposed of at least 257 tons of waste containing radioactive cesium-137, thanks to a change in the rules to exempt this type of radioactive waste made by the Bureau of Radiation Control at WCS's request in 1998.
  • WCS is disposing of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials that is classified as exempt.(10) This waste came from places like a Michigan Superfund site and the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma.
  • WCS has disposed of radioactive waste contaminated with thorium and cadmium from a Superfund site in Pulaski, Pennsylvania.
  • WCS obtained permission in April 1999 to dispose of 20,000 cubic feet of waste from the US Department of Defense contaminated with depleted uranium and lead. This waste was rejected at other sites, but allowed in as exempt under Texas Department of Health.

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour. For more information on contributions to Bush from the nuclear industry nation-wide see The San Francisco Chronicle article "Nuclear Industry contributions to Bush"

Sources:

  1. De Rouffignac, Ann, Houston Business Journal, September 22-28, 1995.
  2. Oppel, Richard, "West Texas Nuclear Waste Dump Plan Back on Drawing Board," Dallas Morning News, June 25, 1996.
  3. See WCS's parent company--Valhi's-- SEC filings for 1995. They state that WCS's "long-term future potential" is "significantly dependent" on radioactive waste.
  4. Coghlan, Keely, "Landfill to Receive Backing," Odessa American, October 20, 1995.
  5. Oppel, Richard, "West Texas Nuclear Waste Dump Plan Back on Drawing Board," Dallas Morning News, June 25, 1996.
  6. Blakeslee, Nate, "George Bush's Nuclear Plot," The Nation, March 9, 1998.
  7. Houston Chronicle, "Texas' Top Political Givers, 1996-1998" May 23, 1999.
  8. SEC Archives:QUARTERLY REPORT UNDER SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934 For the quarter ended March 31, 2000
  9. SEC Archives: QUARTERLY REPORT UNDER SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934 For the quarter ended March 31, 2000
  10. Under 150 picocuries per gram of all NORM isotopes and under 30 isotopes per gram of technologically enhanced radium.
 
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