Shipments of Sludge Headed to West Texas

By Camaron Abundes   
NewsWest 9

ANDREWS CO.- A sign just before you drive into the City of Andrews spells out its core values: Andrews Loves God, Country, and Supports Free Enterprise. In the 1990's, city leaders living by that mantra wanted to diversify and went out in search of a new industry to bring to the area. The Mayor and other leaders toured hazardous waste sites around the state and commissioned studies on the land. In 1997, Waste Control Specialists, LLC, moved into a site 30 miles west of town.

"The community has been very supportive and we have been very open and honest about what we're doing." Tom Jones, Waste Control Specialists Vice President for Community Relations, said.

The W.C.S. site is currently expanding. Construction crews are already hard at work digging an additional landfill behind the RCRA landfill. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently authorized the disposal of low-level radioactive waste at the site.

"It brings more jobs into Andrews." Local Resident John Wheeler told NewsWest 9.

The expansion and construction at the site is adding more than 50 new jobs. Currently, W.C.S. employs 150 people. More than a quarter of its employees have a Bachelors Degree or higher Degree.

"If they built the plant and they have specialized people that actually take care of everything and they do their job correctly, we won't have problems," Wheeler said when asked about the site's proximity to town.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the TCEQ for granting the permit to W.C.S. to dispose of low-level radio active waste. Neil Carman, Ph.D. says the TCEQ did not hold a public hearing before giving the authorization.

The new permit isn't the only concern for Carman. He says a hazardous waste project set to start this summer needs to be looked at by the EPA. The group wrote a letter to Lisa Jackson, appointed by President Barack Obama to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. Carman called for an environmental impact study for hauling soil from the Hudson River to West Texas and for storing the chemicals at the site.

"We're basically leaving this mess for future generations to cleanup," Carman said in a phone interview with NewsWest 9.

The EPA has already approved a plan for General Electric to dredge up a 40 mile stretch of the Hudson River. A GE plant pumped PCB's or polychlorinated biphenals into the river for years before the chemicals were deemed toxic. PCB's are manmade compounds that don't break down easily. EPA officials say the compound started to bio-accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish. PCB's are believed to cause cancer in humans, reproductive and immune system problems along with other health related issues.

An EPA spokesperson told NewsWest 9 in a phone interview, the cleanup is one of the largest in U.S. history.

"They can come out with all the studies they want, but I just don't see how it's possible to really contain all that kind of stuff," Andrews Resident Bob Swearingen, said.

The Waste Control Specialists site has accepted PCB's for years, but the latest project set to start in May or June is on a much larger scale. The project requires a crew to lay an additional line of railroad track around the disposal site and the purchase of a rail car. W.C.S. already has a strip of track that runs into the facility. The project will start when the Hudson River thaws. Trains will begin hauling soil from New York to West Texas.  81 rail cars will arrive every other day up to the next seven years.

"Just by moving the material to West Texas won't neutralize it, that material will still be highly toxic for hundreds of years in these drums," Carman said about the EPA approved plan to remove the sediment from the river bed in New York.

An EPA spokesman also told NewsWest 9, the size and scope of the project makes it impossible to neutralize the PCB's found at the Hudson River Superfund Site. The only viable option for GE is to remove the soil. Carman is concerned the site in Andrews has not been properly characterized by W.C.S. scientists and he says there is a risk of groundwater contamination.

"We've had geologists, and hydro-geological experts, who look at the soil out there and they think the site has some serious problems with it," Carman said.

Andrews pumps its city water from two well fields more than 30 miles from the site. City Manager Glen Hackler says the early studies on the site showed no risk of groundwater contamination.

W.C.S. spokesman Tom Jones III, says groundwater does not exists below the landfill. The company also retains an environmental team on staff.

"We don't have any groundwater under the site, we're sitting on six to eight hundred feet of red bed clay, which is almost impossible for liquids to go through." Carman said.