Hoffpauir Auto Group

Texas Regulators Vote Against
Sierra Blanca Nuke Waste Dump

SIERRA BLANCA, Texas —(AP)— Gloria Addington hardly noticed the chilly wind blowing through this West Texas hamlet, the site of a long-running battle over whether a low-level radioactive waste dump would be in the town's future.

Ms. Addington and others were too busy celebrating a decision by state regulators to reject a license for the proposed dump. The panel cited concerns over a geologic fault beneath the site just 20 miles from Mexico.

"I am so happy. I don't know how to say it. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off us," she said as well-wishers congregated in her general store to bask in Thursday's news.

Neighbors have taken sides ever since state officials decided six years ago that rural Sierra Blanca, a mostly poor community 90 miles southwest of El Paso, was the place to bury tons of low-level radioactive waste. Most of it would come from Texas utilities, and the rest would be hauled in from Maine and Vermont.

Proponents touted the dump as a potential economic boon, but some residents including Ms. Addington feared the potential for contamination in the struggling town of 700.

Mexico has protested the dump as have environmental activists, who argued it would be hazardous to locate it in the state's most seismically active region and above a key groundwater source.

As the license vote neared, anti-dump activists marched on the governor's mansion in Austin last week and a group of Mexican congressmen staged a hunger strike.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission voted 3-0 to deny a permit for the federally approved project. There is not "truly a complete and sufficient picture of this facility and how for example it will perform," said panel Chairman Barry McBee.

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, a state agency created to find a site for the dump, has 20 days to file for a rehearing. If that is denied, the agency could go to court to try to have the commission's decision overturned.

Doug Caroom, lawyer for the disposal authority, had argued that the site is needed to dispose of radioactive trash generated by power plants, industry, medical labs and universities.

Texas began searching for a dump site in 1983.

An agreement allowing Maine and Vermont to ship their radioactive waste to Texas was signed into law by President Clinton last month. Under terms of that deal, Maine and Vermont will pay Texas $55 million for the long-term storage of their refuse.

"I don't think this (vote) is necessarily unexpected," said Jill Fileo, spokeswoman for Maine Gov. Angus King. "The compact indicates the state of Texas, it doesn't indicate a specific area in Texas. So, I don't think it was necessarily expected that the first site would be the site."

The decommissioning of Maine Yankee nuclear power plant remains on track and unaffected by the commission's decision, said plant spokesman Eric Howes. The now-closed plant can ship low level radioactive waste to licensed facilities in South Carolina and Utah, he said.

State waste disposal officials were left picking up the pieces of their plans after the vote.

"We haven't been able to sit down to determine what we ought to do," Lee Mathews, general counsel for the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, said Friday.

The available options include requesting a rehearing before the three-member conservation commission, or even appealing the decision in court.

Mathews said he doesn't know if that will ever happen given Gov. George W. Bush's adamant declarations against the dump following Thursday's vote.

"I have said all along that this regulatory decision should be based on science and facts," Bush said. "The state's environmental officials have determined the site is not safe. Therefore, the dump will not be built at Sierra Blanca, period."

So now dump officials are forced to consider pulling up stakes in Sierra Blanca, where they had spent the last six years trying to develop a facility to bury tons of waste from Texas utilities, hospitals and universities.

Several other locations were also considered over the years, including Fort Hancock, another site in the same county. A 1991 court order forced the state to abandon Fort Hancock, 35 miles to the east.

Mathews said disposal authority staff had only had preliminary discussions prior to the vote on the possibility of shutting down.

"I guess we were a little too optimistic," he said. "We haven't determined anything in detail yet."

Remaining issues include finding some use for the 16,000-acre Faskin Ranch, where the dump would have been located and where the trench was dug. The state bought the ranch for just under $1 million in 1992.

The state also faces the original question: What to do with the waste?

Eddie Selig, spokesman for Advocates for Responsible Disposal in Texas, a group that lobbied for the dump, said the issue will likely go back to the Legislature, which had mandated the site be located somewhere in Hudspeth County in the first place.

Some advocates are pushing for Andrews County as an alternative site, but the group that helped derail plans for the Sierra Blanca dump vows it will get involved again if that is the case, a spokesman says.

"It would be hypocritical and bordering on immoral for us to fight against this dump in Sierra Blanca and then turn around and ignore Andrews," Bill Addington of the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund told the Odessa American. "There are 16,000 to 17,000 people there. And a lot of people that I don't think know what's going on there."

The Andrews site is being pushed by the Andrews Industrial Foundation. The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority passed over Andrews County in the 1980s in favor of the Sierra Blanca location in Hudspeth County.

"The welcome mat is out," Andrews Industrial Foundation spokesman Bill Miller said. "We will be educating legislators about the facility, letting them know we can take care of their needs top to bottom."

Two companies are interested in an Andrews County site for the lucrative waste-disposal facility: Envirocare, a Utah-based disposal group that handles more than 90 percent of national low-level waste disposal and already has a facility in Andrews County, and Pasadena-based Waste Control Specialists, Inc. Andrews County is 180 miles northeast of Sierra Blanca, near the southeast corner of New Mexico.

According to a 1987 disposal authority report, one site studied in western Andrews County was considered "marginal" for radioactive waste disposal.

Key criteria for a low-level radioactive waste site, the report states, include low annual rainfall, a thick section of impermeable rock and no potable ground water.

The study of the Andrews County site found higher rainfall levels than in western portions of the state. It also indicated that the sandy nature of the soil encouraged recharge of the water table from rainfall and that windmills near the site suggested a shallow source of ground water.

"We did drill a hole or two and looked at some maps," said Lee Mathews, general counsel for the authority. "We saw that there were issues that might require more time or money to investigate."

But authority general manager Lawrence Jacobi warned in 1987 that unless it could be proved that the Ogallala aquifer is not recharged through or from the site area, state law precluded the site from being considered.

Norm Sunderland, director of permitting at Envirocare's 888-acre Andrews County facility, said his company was "very interested" in contracting with the state. "The Andrews County siting is the obvious choice for Texas," he said.

Deep clay deposits and little rainfall, Sunderland said, make the Andrews site the preferred location.

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