NewsWest 9 Special Report: WCS Debate II

WCS President Rod Baltzer
WCS President Rod Baltzer
Cyrus Reed of the Sierra Club
Cyrus Reed of the Sierra Club
Karen Hadden of the CEED Coalition
Karen Hadden of the CEED Coalition
Chuck McDonald
Chuck McDonald

By Camaron Abundes   
NewsWest 9

ANDREWS - While Waste Control Specialists continues construction on a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Andrews County, environmental groups are continuing their fight to stop the project.

In January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved the low-level radioactive disposal license five years after the initial application.

"I was surprised there were so many inconsistencies and so many questions still about the site," Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club Conservation Director Cyrus Reed, Ph.D said.

The environmental group has called upon the TCEQ to grant a contested case hearing on behalf of its members in the region, including member Rose Gardener in Eunice, New Mexico. Reed says the decision to request the hearing was easy when he found numerous unanswered questions in the state's documents.

The current Executive Director of the TCEQ Mark Vickery, defended the license in an official state response.

"The proposed license, if issued, will meet all of the statutory and regulatory requirements." Vickery wrote. He then refused to grant the contested case hearing.

The Sierra Club has filed four lawsuits in a Travis County District Court appealing the TCEQ's decisions to deny the Sierra Club's hearing requests and approval of license applications to WCS for disposal of radioactive byproduct material and low-level radioactive waste.

According to Reed, the radioactive byproduct hearing is scheduled for the end of July. No date has been set for the low-level radioactive waste license hearing.

TCEQ would not field NewsWest 9's many questions citing the ongoing case.

According to Reed, Waste Control Specialists has filed a motion to dismiss the case. The company continues to stress their site in western Andrews County is safe and will not pollute groundwater.

"We want to make sure it gets done safely, and it's a difficult issue because a lot of people in Andrews County believe it is a good economic development opportunity and who are we to stop them, but this is such a big issue because this is about where we as a state are going to put our radioactive waste from our nuclear plants and from our medical facilities. It's worth being cautious and careful about," Reed said.

The TCEQ technical staff voiced numerous concerns in the months leading up to issuance of the WCS draft license.

In an August 2007 memo, four members of the team recommended against issuance of the license. In another interoffice memo date July 16, 2007 the staff discussed deficiencies of the hydrogeologic conceptual model and criticized WCS for failure to demonstrate compliance with state regulations regarding ground water.

The memo states: "Failure of the applicant to demonstrate compliance with 30 TAC 336.728(f) is partially associate with deficiencies (e.g. insufficient spatial coverage, possible errors, inconsistencies, missing narrative explanation) in the available site characterization data. However technical staff concluded the additional site characterization alone may not reverse the failure of the applicant to demonstrate compliance with the regulatory requirement."

"It seems like those are basic questions that should have been answered before any license was issued," Reed said.

Reed believes issues like erosion and where the dry line exists on the site should have been decided before the TCEQ moved forward. In December of 2007 the state issued the draft license.

"The issues are so clear and have been expressed so directly to [the TCEQ] that I can't think of any scenario that allows me to comment on how they would come to this conclusion: other than there is too much money on the table, there is too much political influence in the air and they can't say anything but yes," former TCEQ staff member Glenn Lewis said.

Lewis says team members at TCEQ expected the license to move through despite their concerns.

Five Year Process

WCS President Rod Baltzer defends the site in Andrews County. Baltzer said the application process lasted five years because it was so intensive.

According to Baltzer, the company answered more than a thousand questions from the agency. The TCEQ issued two notices of deficiency, but Baltzer said the company addressed more than a thousand of the staff's original concerns.

"As far as, was this pushed through or ramrodded through, like I said, this was almost five years of technical review, if that was pushed through or ramrodded through it was a very poor job done. This was a very thorough review," Baltzer said.

Lewis and others still contend the agency made a decision to authorize the license without all the needed data.

"What I did learn is there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the staff of the TCEQ. I wouldn't say to approve the license, but to make sure everything was in order," Reed said. "The Executive Director very much wanted to have this license issued and a number of the staff felt very strongly that the license wasn't ready to be issued and that there continue to be questions about the suitability of the hydrology and hydrogeology. "

According to TCEQ documents obtained by NewsWest 9 through a Freedom of Information Request, former Executive Director Glenn Shankle was involved in the license process.

Shankle met six times with WCS officials in 2007. The TCEQ did not answer any of NewsWest 9's questions citing the pending litigation. Therefore, NewsWest 9 was unable to confirm if high-level meetings are typical during the application process.

Shankle stepped down in the summer of 2008 from his post as Executive Director of the TCEQ. According to the Texas Ethics Commission Shankle began work as a WCS lobbyist in January 2007 making a salary of between $100,000 and $150,000.

NewsWest 9 attempted several times to contact Shankle at numbers listed on the Texas Ethics Commission website. He never returned NewsWest 9's phone calls.

"He actually left (TCEQ) before we got our final license granted. He wasn't involved completely through that process," Baltzer said, defending the hire.

"We have hired him as a lobbyist ,but as you may know he used to work for Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. He's had a lot of experience at the capital and we hired him for legislative items. [Shankle] is not allowed to work on items related to TCEQ and we do not have a contract with him on anything related to TCEQ. But he's got a lot of good legislative experience and we did hire him for the legislative session," Baltzer said.

Environmentalists are crying foul. The CEED coalition is calling for an investigation into the TCEQ's issuance of the low-level radioactive waste disposal license.

"We don't think they're putting the health and safety of Texans first. We think this is political and there is a lot of pressure because a lot of money is involved," Karen Hadden, Director of the CEED Coalition, which is based in Austin said.

Hadden recently came under fire by WCS for alleged ethics violations during a $75 million dollar bond election in Andrews County back in May. Andrews County voters decided by just three votes to bankroll the multimillion dollar construction of the low-level radioactive waste disposal site.

CEED funded local Andrews County sisters Peggy and Melodie Pryor's efforts under the group "No Bonds for Billionaires."

"Now people argue about where is the edge of the aquifer. We think this Ogallala aquifer could be contaminated because originally maps showed it was below the site, but later the maps were changed, so that concerns us a great deal," Hadden said.

NewsWest 9 contacted the Texas Water Development Board about the Ogallala. Officials say the maps were last changed in 2007 to reflect new well data collected in the region.

Baltzer contends water age dated to 15,000 years is trapped below hundreds of feet of red bed clays and is moving at a rate of four feet every thousand years. WCS researchers have drilled 520 borings and 390 monitoring wells to characterize the site. The Ogallala is found north and north-east of the WCS site according to recent Texas Water Development Board maps.

Groups Questioned by WCS

"Suddenly, after the licenses have been issued and this is real, some phoney organizations pop up," Chuck McDonald, President of McDonald Public Relations out of Austin, said. McDonald's firm represents WCS.

McDonald says renewed criticism of the site is surprising and he questions the motives behind the upstart environmental group "Save the Ogallala."

"Save the Ogallala" was started by New Mexico attorney Adam Greenwood. WCS has sued Greenwood and says he is spreading lies about the company.

"Those questions need to be answered, who are these guys and who is paying them," McDonald said.

McDonald says his client stands behind its site and its investment in Andrews County, calling the endeavor a partnership with the County Commissioners and the community.

"WCS has invested to date $225 million in this endeavor to move it forward and it is at a critical juncture. Now that the permits have been secured, we can start taking in waste in significant enough levels that the county starts seeing the revenue they expect and WCS starts seeing a return on the 225 million dollar investment," McDonald said.