NewsWest 9 Special Report: WCS Debate

WCS President Rod Baltzer
WCS President Rod Baltzer
Former TCEQ employee Glenn Lewis
Former TCEQ employee Glenn Lewis
The WCS disposal facility under construction in Andrews County
The WCS disposal facility under construction in Andrews County
Rod Baltzer shows off the red clays that are below WCS
Rod Baltzer shows off the red clays that are below WCS

By Camaron Abundes   
NewsWest 9

ANDREWS - The issue of groundwater contamination appears cut and dry to Glenn Lewis as he fields questions from a rocking chair in his Austin home.

"That is simply is not a good site. Everybody on the team knows it's not. Management has been repeatedly advised that it's not and I have no idea what the good folks of Andrews County have been told about it," Lewis said.

Lewis is a former technical writer and editor for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. He left the agency when it began drafting a low-level radioactive waste license for Waste Control Specialists back in 2007.

WCS runs a waste disposal site in western Andrews County. They are currently constructing a facility that will take low-level radio active waste from other parts of the country. Andrews County residents approved a $75 million bond to help fund that construction. That vote passed by only three votes.

Lewis says after nearly four years of site study and research four members of the technical team wanted to prepare a document outlining its conclusions. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NewsWest 9 obtained an interoffice memo dated August 14, 2007.

In the memo, the staff members recommend against issuance of the low-level radioactive waste license. The memo says groundwater contamination is likely at the site in Andrews County and water is already encroaching on the proposed site to unsafe levels.

"We were all assembled in a room with the Assistant Executive Director and the Division Director. They said it had been decided by the Executive Director Glen Shankle," Lewis said.

"On behalf of the team I told them how disappointed we were to hear it officially even though we knew it was inevitable and I thought the agency would expose itself to ridicule if they continued. "

Lewis and two other staff member reportedly quit following the announcement that WCS would get the license from the state. NewsWest 9 contacted another former employee who declined comment for fear speaking out would negatively impact their future employment.

"Is it really worth taking a chance on the water that is there forever?" Lewis asked. "So a company can make money now and hire maybe ten or fifteen people?"

WCS Responds

WCS President Rod Baltzer sat down with NewsWest9 to discuss the issues and allegations against his company. Baltzer says the 2007 Memo was crafted without all current available data.

"I think that memo was in the file, but it never got reflected in the official opinions of the agency because I don't think the official opinions of the agency thought that was a valid opinion," Baltzer said.

"I think somebody was commenting off the cuff and they put that in a memo. I don't think that they had all the data and we've done a lot more data analysis since then to address any concerns they may have had."

To date, Baltzer says the team at WCS has drilled 520 borings, 390 monitoring wells and better understands the site hydrology than it did when the memo was written.

"It's really an integrated system. There is not one failure point. If the liner failed you'd be in trouble; no it's if the liner failed and if we didn't take care of the waste," Baltzer said. According to Baltzer, the staff has made projections for the various scenarios and all prove the waste will be safe for 50,000 years.

Groundwater Concerns

The issue of groundwater is a hot topic. In the last few months critics of the WCS site have launched an offensive.

The group "Save the Ogallala" founded by Albuquerque attorney Adam Greenwood has inspired news articles in papers around the country, including The New York Times.

WCS has filed a lawsuit against Greenwood and is trying to counter the group's website savetheogallalaaquifer.com with its own website savetheogallalaaquifertruths.com.

WCS says Greenwood wants to hurt its business and is simply spreading lies that their facility will pollute groundwater in the area. WCS says that is not possible. Greenwood has told NewsWest9 he stands behind his website and his claims.

"We've found and we've got documented reports that show the fastest ground water we have is horizontal about 225 feet below the surface and it only moves four feet every thousand years." Baltzer said.

Maps provided by the Texas Water Development Board place the Ogallala north of the WCS site. Officials with the Water Development Board say the map was last adapted in 2007 to reflect additional well and drilling data.

According to a recent memo prepared by William P. Dornsife, P.E. for Waste Control Specialists, OAG groundwater found in the future low-level radioactive waste site is isolated and responds to modern precipitation. The OAG stands for Ogallala-Antlers-Gatuna, which consists of soil and sediments.

"When we build these facilities we will dig completely through those thirty feet and we'll continue down for about 75 feet in to the red bed clays. There will be none of that moisture above," Baltzer said.

During an interview inside the Newswest 9 studio, Rod Baltzer pulled a clay boring out of a glass canister. Baltzer used the demonstration as a chance to talk about the virtual impermeability of the red bed clays underneath the site. Baltzer knocked a cylindrical slab of solid clay against the ground making an audible thud.

"The natural red bed materials is less permeable than the liners and so that natural material is just as good and it will be effective forever," Baltzer said.

The clays act like concrete, but will bend if there is seismic activity. Baltzer said the Rattlesnake Canyon Earthquake, which struck in the early 1990's, was used in the site's modeling.

But in an undated TCEQ document titled "Uncertainty of Performance Assessment," extensive fractures in the red bed clays are noted, "providing a flow path for the radionuclides from the disposal trenches to the water table."

Other TCEQ documents note fractures up to 3 millimeters.

"It's not like modeling clay that it will contain water if you make a bowl out of it. It's dry...and you can crush it with your hands," Glenn Lewis said.

Baltzer argues the clay is only fractured at the surface and is compacted tightly for hundreds of feet.

According to TCEQ documents, staff and consultants had some concerns about erosion, salt dissolution - a phenomenon partly to blame for the Wink Sinks or sinkholes in Winkler County -and reverse faulting including the 5.0 Rattlesnake Canyon Quake from 1992.

Lewis says those concerns could be mitigated through conditions placed on the WCS license, but that does not change the geology of the site, which he maintains is not adequate.

"The one thing that can not be addressed by a license condition is the geology," Lewis told NewsWest 9.

WCS claims the geology hasn't changed, but they understand it better than ever before.

"We drilled down to that 225 zone level, but we never wanted to drill through it," Baltzer said.

"We always assumed on the other side it might be wet and we assumed in all of our modeling that it was wet."

Baltzer said the TCEQ staff wanted specific details.

"We did go ahead and drill through it in four different borings. We found out it was dry on the other side which surprised us so that site was drier than we originally anticipated but that helped us finalize our models," Baltzer said.

"I think it also addresses some of those concerns. So adding those additional borings I think did address some of those long term items that TCEQ staff reviewers weren't quite comfortable with, provided them more data so they did get comfortable so they did get comfortable."