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With Vote, Texas Moves Closer to Expanded Nuclear Waste Dump

The House gave preliminary approval today to a bill that will give more flexibility to an operator at a planned West Texas disposal site for low-level radioactive waste. An effort to curb the company's potential profits failed.

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The House gave preliminary approval today to a bill that will give a politically connected operator broad authority to set the rates it charges for radioactive waste imported into Texas for disposal.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, passed the House 108 to 36 after more than an hour of floor debate. It smooths the way for the company to accept low-level radioactive waste from several dozen states in addition to Texas and Vermont, which already have an agreement to use the West Texas site.

Opponents of the bill expressed concerns about the potential profit margins of the site operator, Waste Control Specialists. While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will regulate the rates the company charges to accept waste from Texas and Vermont, radioactive material from other states — which have few if any alternative options for disposal, save the ad-hoc status quo of storing it at hospitals and universities around the country — will not be subject to regulated rates.

"Fundamentally what it represents is the biggest pork-barrel project in history," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who said that Texas was effectively establishing a monopoly with potentially unlimited profits.

But Lewis said that the company had already invested millions of dollars in the project, which Texas has been contemplating for nearly two decades. Waste Control Specialists assumes the liability risks and must put up some $136 million against those risks before its scheduled opening later this year — though ultimately, Lewis acknowledged in response to a question from State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, the risk belongs to the state of Texas. Lewis said there was no guarantee that the company would make money. "I don't know if they'll lose their shirts or make some," he said. 

Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and his family are majority owners of Waste Control Specialists. According to data posted on the website of the Texas Ethics Commission, Gov. Rick Perry has received $1.1 million from Simmons since 2001; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has received at least $419,000 since 2000, and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, got $17,000 since 2005.

An amendment by State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, would have limited the profit margins of Waste Control Specialists, the operator, to 30 percent, with the rest of the intake going to the state of Texas. But it was voted down 87-56. Several Republicans, including John Smithee of Amarillo and Stefanie Carter of Dallas, voted against a motion to table amendment. Democrat Craig Eiland of Galveston voted against the amendment (i.e., for the motion to table).

Democrats offered other amendments aimed at increasing environmental regulation at the site or studying it further, but they failed. An amendment by Lewis that created a 20 percent surcharge on waste coming to the dump from out of state got attached to the bill today. That money will go to the state. It is in addition to a 10 percent surcharge for all waste that Andrews County and the state will split.

The TCEQ will also study the surcharge and report back to the legislature no later than December 2016, according to Lewis' amendment.

The bill awaits a final vote in the House. A similar version has already passed the Senate.

Waste Control Specialists welcomed today's outcome. "It's a complex bill and a complex issue, and the authors of this legislation, Sen. [Kel] Seliger and Rep. Lewis, did an excellent job of coming up with a piece of legislation that is going to have long-term benefits for the state of Texas," said Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for the company.

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