Sierra Club – 1 : TCEQ – 0

Late yesterday, in a stunning rebuke of TCEQ’s decision to deny citizens the right to show how dangerous radioactive disposal would be in West Texas, State District Court Judge Lora Livingston ordered TCEQ to reverse their decision denying the Sierra Club the right to a contested case hearing over the license granted to Waste Control Specialists to operate a radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, just east of the New Mexico border. In her order, Judge Livingston remanded the case back to the TCEQ for a contested case hearing on whether this radioactive waste can be safely disposed of in West Texas.

The Sierra Club’s won a battle in its long fight against a radioactive waste dump in West Texas when the Travis CountyJudge reversed a decision made by the TCEQ three years ago that denied Sierra Club its right to a contested case hearing on the license given to Waste Control Specialists (WCS) for the dump. Sierra Club subsequently filed a lawsuit in District Court to win that hearing, but the court date had been delayed for years.  Yesterday was the first opportunity for opponents to argue before an impartial judge about the TCEQ’s conscious decision to ignore key information about potential problems with the site. The Judge agreed that TCEQ should have granted the Sierra Club the right to oppose the license for the waste dump in a contested case hearing before state administrative law judges and now the TCEQ license has been remanded to the agency to grant the contested case hearing.

Low level radioactive waste is so dangerous that it has to be disposed of in specially designed remote and isolated sites to prevent contamination of water and air.  When Waste Control Specialists applied for a license, the staff at TCEQ reviewed the application and recommended its rejection because of their concerns about the possibility of water intrusion and contamination.  The TCEQ’s executive director overruled the recommendation of the staff and recommended issuing the license.

In light of the staff’s concerns, the Sierra Club requested a hearing on the application. That request was denied and the license was issued by two of the three TCEQ commissioners appointed by Governor Perry. Six months later TCEQ’s executive director went to work for WCS.

New information has recently come to light about the WCS site  pertaining to the potential for water to come into contact with radioactive materials. According to data provided by TCEQ., water has been detected in monitoring wells at the facility for the last several months. An expert report authored by geologist George Rice and entitled, Occurrence of Groundwater at the Compact Waste Facility Waste Control Specialists Facility Andrews County, Texas, points out that infiltration of rainwater and movement of groundwater was already occurring within the buffer zone of the “Compact Waste Site” as recently as this March.

Just last week, the TCEQ granted WCS the right to receive radioactive waste at the site and begin operations despite the Sierra Club’s appeal to State District Court.

Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club said, “This ruling confirms what we have been saying all along. The Sierra Club and its members in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico deserve the opportunity to show that radioactive waste dumped at the WCS site could impact people in the area through airborne radioactive particles and potential groundwater contamination. TCEQ should immediately stop operations at the WCS site and follow the judge’s order and grant the Sierra Club’s request for an expeditious but fair contested case hearing on the license for the dump site.”

Rose Gardner lives within four miles of the WCS radioactive waste facility and was represented in this case by Sierra Club. “I’m very glad about the judge’s decision, since we’ll now have a hearing where we can fully examine radioactive risks to our land and water. We now have more livestock than ever before and having the WCS radioactive waste dump nearby threatens our health and safety. TCEQ blocked this hearing before and needs to be more open with information and opportunities for citizens to participate,” said Gardner.

“This case is of national significance because the dump’s biggest investor is Harold Simmons, one of the largest contributors to Republican political campaigns and attack ads. He helped to fund the “Swift  Boat Veterans for Truth”  and  the “Obama is a Muslim”  attack ads. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Simmons has spent $18 million so far this election cycle and plans to spend a total of $36 million before the end of this cycle. Why would he spend that kind of money?  The amount and types of waste could be vastly expanded by a Republican President or Congress thus increasing the amount of money Simmons can make off of the dump and  increasing the funds he has available to donate to future political campaigns. And if anyone doubts that his political spending will pay off in favorable treatment, all they have to do is look at how successful he’s been in Texas”  said Tom “Smitty”  Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas Office.

“This is a big victory for the citizens of Texas and New Mexico. The TCEQ knew this case was likely to be decided this week, but rushed to sign off on the dump site late last month, allowing radioactive waste to start coming into Texas, showing just how much political pressure Harold Simmons, the chief financial investor of WCS, can exert on Texas politics and agencies. The first shipments of radioactive waste arrived just 10 days ago.  We call on TCEQ to act responsibly and reverse their decision granting that permit,” said Karen Hadden of  the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition.

The SEED Coalition and Public Citizen have been actively involved in opposing the recently adopted rule to open up the WCS facility to accepting waste from the rest of the nation and continue to monitor the transparency and accountability around this rule change.