DALLAS — By a three-vote margin, the citizens of Andrews County, Tex., voted last May to finance a low-level radioactive waste dump with a $75 million bond issue, the first in the county’s history.
But a lawsuit challenging the validity of 90 ballots has delayed the bond issue and what promoters say would be the first viable solution to disposal of the nation’s growing stockpile of radioactive waste.
“We do feel we have a solution to a national problem,” said Tom Jones, vice president of community relations for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists.
The company, which has operated in the county since the 1990s, has two disposal pits already. Two more would be built with bond proceeds for the low-level radioactive waste from Texas, Vermont, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Under the plan as presented to the voters, Waste Control would build and operate the site with proceeds from a general obligation bond issue. The lease-revenue debt would probably not be tax-exempt, according to county officials. Since the sparsely populated Andrews County has never issued debt before, officials are expecting a credit rating strong enough to keep interest rates relatively low.
In exchange for financing, the county would own $75 million in Waste Control assets and $75 million in the stock of WCS’ parent company Valhi, according to reports. The stock would be held in escrow in case Waste Control could not make its payments. Waste Control has also pledged 5% of its annual revenue to the county and 5% to the state, or about $10 million to each government.
County officials are working with financial adviser First Southwest Co. and bond counsel Fulbright & Jaworski on structuring the deal, said County Judge Richard Dolgener.
WCS president Rod Baltzer, a former auditor with Ernst & Young, said the company turned to the bond market when it was unable to get financing through the usual means.
“We went out and tried to get loans, but the rates were extremely high,” he said. “One of the areas that appears to still have legs is muni bonds.”
Baltzer acknowledges that his company is not profitable, even though it has operated a waste storage facility in the county since 1997. But with state and federal permits in hand, the company could attain a near monopoly on the storage of low-level radioactive waste.
“Our Andrews County facility is the first facility licensed for the disposal of this material since Congress adopted the Low-Level Waste Policy Act in 1980,” Baltzer said.
The company last month completed disposal of 377,600 tons of waste dating back to the Manhattan Project that had been stored at the Fernald site near Cincinnati.
The Fernald waste was mixed with flyash and cement before being sealed in half-inch-thick steel containers. Until last month, the waste was stored at the Andrews site. Now, the waste is considered disposed of under an unusually thick and impermeable layer of clay that is characteristic of the site.
WCS is also preparing to dispose of 390,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, sediment dredged from a Superfund site on the Hudson River in upstate New York. The waste, produced by General Electric from 1947 through the 1970s, has been arriving in 81-rail-car shipments since June.
While states and counties throughout the U.S. have vigorously fought the siting of toxic waste dumps under the “not in my backyard” banner, the town of Andrews and Andrews County actually sought out WCS as a jobs producer, officials say.
“We’ve always dealt with oil and gas and these types of industries,” says Wesley Burnett, director of economic development for the city. “It’s not a detriment to us.”
While the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have challenged the toxic dump site, Burnett said the people of the county are not against the disposal site. The 639 residents who voted against the project were, he believes, opposed to issuing debt for the first time.
“The project as a whole is viewed favorably,” he said. “It wasn’t a vote against the project but against the debt. We’ve never issued bonds before.”
Dolgener dismissed the environmental aspects of the project as “old news.” With 10,000 oil and gas borings in the county, which has a population of 14,000, people are wise to the hazards, he said.
“This is not the pristine Colorado River that you make Coors Beer out of,” he said. “It’s the Chihuahua Desert, and there’s a lot of bad stuff out here that can kill you.”
In their lawsuit seeking to overturn the election, Meloyde and Peggy Pryor challenged the validity of 90 ballots, claiming the votes were cast illegally.
Their attorney, David Rogers, said he is a specialist in election law and is not raising objections to potential hazards from the radioactive waste.
In a ruling in October that simply sided with Dolgener, District Court Judge Jay Gibson made few comments about the validity of the lawsuit’s claims.
Rogers says the State Court of Appeals in El Paso could decide the issue in a few days or a few months. Asked what the county would do if the vote were overturned, Dolgener replied, “We’ll hold another election.”