DALLAS — Amid objections from environmentalists, the Texas Legislature is moving toward expanding a bond-financed radioactive waste dump site in a sparsely populated West Texas county.
SB 1504, which went before the House for a second reading on Tuesday, would allow the site in Andrews County to accept waste from 36 states, in addition to Texas and Vermont.
The bill would increase revenue for the county and Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, whose company Waste Control Specialists operates the site, which was built with $75 million of revenue bonds approved by voters in 2009. Simmons is a major contributor to Republican candidates, including Gov. Rick Perry and Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Under previous legislation that authorized the dump site, the county earns 5% of the revenue and the state gets 5%. County revenues are estimated at $3 million to $4 million per year.
The company was awarded a license by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to dispose of low-level radioactive waste from Vermont and Texas in 2009.
The life of the facility is estimated at 35 years.
WCS turned to Andrews County for financing when it could not find private sources of loans for the facility.
If the project is not self-supporting, the county must levy a 15-cent property tax rate — a 33% increase — for debt service on the bonds issued in 2010.
“In our view, the county’s willingness to support a tax increase of this magnitude is untested,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s noted in conferring an A rating on the bonds.
Bob Gregory, chief executive of Texas Disposal Systems in Austin and a member of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, said the expansion of the site is overly aggressive.
A spokesman for WCS said that the permitting process has been long and arduous, requiring substantial investments from Simmons, who ranks No. 56 on Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans.
The facility is designed as a repository for items such as radioactive gloves and rags from hospitals to decommissioned nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project and Comanche Peak nuclear plants.
Tom Smith, the Texas director of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said that expanding the site could leave little capacity for Texas and Vermont. An increase in trucks carrying hazardous materials on Texas roads also poses a hazard, as does the risk to groundwater, he said.
While WCS is not mentioned by name in SB 1504, it is the only company holding a license in Andrews County. WCS would become the only private company in the United States with the authority to store Class B and C waste that is considered low-level radioactive from out of state. The more hazardous Class A radioactive waste is accepted only by Utah.
Under SB 1504, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would set rates for waste from Texas and Vermont. But WCS would have the authority to negotiate and set prices for waste accepted from other states.
Though environmentalists from around the state have opposed the expansion of the waste dump, residents of Andrews County have proven enthusiastic about the site, seeing it as replacement for some of the area’s lost oil-producing capacity. Residents of the county have built a sign expressing support for “free enterprise,” though WCS represents a monopoly in Texas without any prospective competition.
“This is not a traditional public-purpose infrastructure project; instead, it will fund a for-profit venture,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s wrote.
Andrews County is 50 miles northwest of Odessa and has about 13,000 residents.