In a remote place in the desert of West Texas, outside the small town of Andrews, something dirty has been going on which threatens the water supply of nearly a third of America’s farmland (and perhaps the millions of people who eat the food grown using that water).
The highly radioactive spoils of nuclear power plants from 36 states — as well as other seriously toxic or carcinogenic substances, such as PCBs dredged from the Hudson River — are being dumped there on a regular basis, and this will continue until the designated hole in the ground is filled.
That designated hole happens to be right on the Ogallala Aquifer, according to environmentalists.
At 174,000 square miles, the Ogallala Aquifer is the world’s second largest, providing water to 27 percent of the entire agricultural land in the United States. An aquifer can be a superhighway for nuclear waste, as shown by studies of the movement of waste at polluted nuclear sites such as Hanford, Washington.
The dirty dump owes its existence to dirty politics. Local residents say officials came to town to conspire with billionaires on ways to silence their opposition to the dump. Owned by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), the site was built by Harold C. Simmons, a top contributor to the campaigns of George W. Bush, Rick Perry and the Super PAC run by Bush confidant and Republican Party strategist Karl Rove. Opponents say that WCS amounts to “a privatization of nuclear waste to help a billionaire make billions of dollars more.”
Activists charge that the state of Texas granted WCS its license after repeated intervention by politicians bought by Simmons. And unlike most applicants for licenses, WCS bought the site even before it had performed a proper environmental study of it.
According to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality geologists (TCEQ), leaks from the dump are inevitable. If those leaks got into an aquifer though, the result could be potentially catastrophic. The Ogallala Aquifer these days is being depleted at a much faster rate than it’s being replenished. According to a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, groundwater contamination, lenient regulations and a lack of goals by policymakers are causing major problems in this vast ancient fresh water source which took millions of years to be created. MIT says that at present rates of use the Ogallala will be drained within this century.
How to hide a problem aquifer: Just draw a fake map
A controversial report by Texas Tech University claimed that WCS would not damage any important underground water source. This assertion paved the way for the deal. Texas Tech, however, is widely seen as beholden to major Texas political figures.
Environmental activist Lon Burnam, a member of the state legislature for 18 years and director of the Dallas Peace Center, tells ThisCantBeHappening.net that “corrupt” Texas state officials falsified the location of the aquifer by drawing maps that wrongly showed no aquifer under the WCS site.
Burnam told ThisCantBeHappening! that WCS, which was built by “flawed engineering and science,” can’t keep water out of the dump. He says that for months at a time WCS has needed to pump out water seeping from the aquifer. That same water — possibly now contaminated — also flows back into the aquifer. It is a two-way street.
WCS claims that hundreds of feet of impenetrable red clay are between the site and the nearest ground water. But the TCEQ geologists found that, first of all, there is actually only 14 feet of separation between the site and the nearest groundwater, and secondly, that the so-called impenetrable wall is riddled with holes and fissures.
Meanwhile, an independent study done years earlier by the consulting firm Terra Dynamics, which sampled 58 boreholes at the site, found 46 samples that were described as “moist,” five as “wet,” and one as “making water.”
While denying the presence of water in the site, WCS is apparently trying to deal with the unrecognized issue. WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald said that WCS has a system for dealing with the problem: “It is a moisture disposal system that pumps moisture out.”
In 2009 WCS sued Adam Greenwood, an environmental attorney from Andrews, and president of the Save the Ogallala Aquifer, along with other environmental groups who had claimed the aquifer (which lies as much as 1000 feet below ground in most places) was beneath the waste dump. Glenn Lewis, former Manager of Media Relations of TCEQ, said in a deposition for the Greenwood case that he resigned from TCEQ rather than accept the commission’s approval of a nuclear waste license for WCS. Lewis joined two other TCEQ members who left the board after the license was approved despite their objections: “Because of the likelihood that groundwater would intrude into the proposed disposal units, there was an increased risk that the public would be exposed to radioactive material in their drinking and agricultural water.” Did other court documents say anything to the contrary?
Shortly afterwards TCEQ executive director Glenn Shankle, who supported the license, left the commission to become a lobbyist for WCS.
Greenwood, now an assistant attorney general for New Mexico, was asked by ThisCantBeHappening! if the aquifer was beneath WCS answered, “I can’t comment,” when asked why he couldn’t comment he said “no comment,” when asked about the final disposition of the lawsuit, he hung up. WCS has not responded to repeated calls for comment.
Note: WCS now controls all hydrogeological monitoring in the area.
No bonds for billionaires
Melodye and Peggy Pryor have been fighting WCS from its beginnings. They’re descendants of oilfield roughnecks and lifelong residents of Andrews. A sign on the main road into the town proclaims “Andrews loves God, country and supports free enterprise.”
Although WCS claims to have “unanimous” support in Andrews to expand the dump, Melodye Pryor told ThisCantBeHappening! that a $75-million county bond measure to partially fund operations at the facility passed by only three votes.
Pryor and a small coterie of WCS opponents had mustered a campaign against the bond measure under the slogan “No Bonds for Billionaires,” a reference to the involvement of Simmons. WCS responded, predictably, that the dump would bring money and jobs to the area. It never happened.
Going against WCS would be ‘bad for business’
According to Pryor, town meetings were “stacked by corporate supporters” and residents were intimidated and even threatened by WCS supporters.
Pryor said that at community meetings her family had to walk a gauntlet of men, snickering supporters of Bush and Perry, who called them “bitches and things my father would have punched them in the nose for saying to a woman.” Local business people, she added, were silenced by threats that going against WCS would be “bad for business.”
But the promised economic benefits never materialized, she said. Andrews remains a poor backwater without so much as a movie theater.
Just pile it on
The dangerous consequences of having WCS in their community soon became evident when, earlier this year, hundreds of radioactive nuclear waste barrels from New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) suddenly appeared. They had been shipped to WCS under what were called emergency conditions. (WCS is licensed by the TCEQ to accept the temporary storage of any waste in an emergency.)
According to a Department of Energy (DOE) study, those barrels — which contained a highly inflammable mix of nuclear waste and organic kitty litter — were at risk of spontaneous explosion. And indeed one barrel did ignite, causing extensive damage.
A spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department, Allison Majure, told ThisCantBeHappening! that 109 waste barrels containing the explosive nuke waste/organic kitty litter mixture from LANL remain in isolation at WCS.
But environmentalists and local residents say that WCS shouldn’t be trusted to hold the potentially explosive containers.
‘Where is the specific plan for exploding waste?’
Emergency response procedures for WCS — supplied to ThisCantBeHappening! in response to a Texas open records request — are woefully inadequate, according to Karen Hadden, executive director of the Texas-based environmental watchdog Sustainable Energy and Economic Development, or SEED Coalition.
“It’s as if the state hadn’t thought about the magnitude of the emergency,” she said. “Where is the specific plan for exploding waste?” Hadden asks, referring to the 2014 accident at the New Mexico plant.
LANL, which improperly packed the waste, must now figure out a method to deal with the potentially explosive barrels and make them safe for transport. According to Majure, that method could then be passed along to WCS.
Privatized nuclear operations have been suspect since 1989 when the FBI raided a nuclear weapons facility run by what was then the nation’s largest defense contractor, Rockwell International. The company paid a fine of nearly $20 million for dumping plutonium — a man-made product of nuclear fission that does not occur in nature — into the environment.
WCS is the only private company in the United States licensed to import class “B” and “C” low level waste from other states. The term “low level” is a catch-all classification that does not mean it’s safer or less dangerous; it simply means it’s radioactive waste that can’t be classified as spent fuel from reactors, which is often termed “high level” waste. Another waste source called “greater than class C” is a more highly radioactive version that must be kept away from human contact for many thousands of years.
A sordid history
Harold C. Simmons was a hedge fund investor with a reputation for taking over technology companies while claiming to be a ”builder” and not a “destroyer” of the companies he bought — companies which included WCS, Halliburton, and National Lead.
Among the leaders of these companies were powerful figures in the Republican Party. These included Gale Norton — former Secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush and an attorney who defended National Lead against charges of lead paint poisoning of schoolchildren — and Dick Cheney, head of Halliburton in the 1990s. Halliburton reportedly received $40 billion dollars in government contracts during the Iraq war.
Kent Hance, former chancellor of Texas Tech, and a former congressman and lobbyist, had initially approached Simmons with a proposition to buy WCS. But some details had to be worked out if WCS was going to be profitable. The company not only needed the state of Texas to allow the dump; it also needed permission to store waste from other states. Hance, made famous in Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic “W” as the only person who ever beat George W. Bush in an election, became a partner in WCS and the serious politicking began.
Bright future for dumping, grim future for the public
In February of 2015, the company announced plans to get a license for spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants which would allow it to accept high level waste. WCS said it expects to have the license by 2019.
Meanwhile, the federal government has amassed a fund of about $30 billion from utility ratepayers, corporate money and government subsidies purportedly intended to fund research into finding a way to dispose of more than 70,000 tons of commercial nuclear reactor waste currently stored on site at reactors across the country. The result is a potential boom for operators like WCS — a radioactive version of the gold rush, funded by taxpayers.
The question is, what will be the fate of the water supply in America’s increasingly aquifer-dependent farm belt?
Teacher and freelance writer PAUL DeRIENZO won a grant from the George Polk Awards to write about his father’s experiences as a nuclear engineer in the 1960s. A commentator on RT-America, co-author of the Ibogaine Story and former editor in chief of High Times, the pro-marijuana monthly, his public access TV show “Let Them Talk” is broadcast every Tuesday at 8 on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. He wrote this article exclusively for ThisCantBeHappening.net