Judge blocks vote on expanding nuclear waste dump in Texas

An Austin judge on Thursday blocked an eight-member commission from deciding whether to allow as many as three dozen states to ship low-level radioactive waste to a remote West Texas site, sending countless loads of contaminated materials through North Texas.

Travis County Judge Jon Wisser signed a temporary restraining order against the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, apparently preventing a vote Tuesday on rules to guide the shipment of the radioactive material to a Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews County, about 350 miles west of Fort Worth.

"We are opposed to the expansion of the site," said Timothy Gannaway, founder and director of the Promote Andrews advocacy group that sought the restraining order. "We're a little worried about what the next step might be. If we give a little here, are they going to ask next to transport waste here from other countries? At what point do they stop asking for more?"

Officials with the commission could not be reached for comment Thursday as to whether Tuesday's scheduled meeting has been canceled or how long the vote night be delayed. The meeting was set for 9 a.m. at the James Roberts Center in Andrews.

At least one commission member has been concerned that the vote was being rushed and that he and others wouldn't have time to review submitted comments about the proposal.

"It's too much, too fast, too soon, if at all," said Bob Gregory, a commission member and chairman and CEO of the Austin-based Texas Disposal Systems. "I don't think we are ready to do this at all at this time because it was never the intent of the Texas or Vermont legislatures ... to open this facility up to all the states in the nation."

Objections raised

The proposed rule change would open the site for as many as 36 states to send contaminated materials such as hospital equipment, beakers, even soil that came in contact with radioactive material to West Texas. It was published in the Texas Register for 30 days.

Gannaway said his group sought the restraining order because they were concerned that a commission e-mail address listed with the notice didn't accept e-mail during most of that period. "They offered an alternate e-mail on their website, but the one listed in the Texas Register wasn't valid," Gannaway said.

The Associated Press reported that Wisser's order at least temporarily prevents a vote on the issue.

The decision comes as environmentalists continued to fight the proposal, fearing problems both at the dump site and during transportation.

After Congress told states to form compacts to dispose of radioactive waste, Texas and Vermont teamed up to safely get rid of their waste, along with materials from the federal government. Now the question is whether the commission, appointed by governors in both states, will open the door to waste from more states.

Vermont Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin has criticized the proposed expansion, concerned that Vermont might not maintain its ability to use at least one-fifth of the facility. But he doesn't take office until Jan. 6, two days after the commission was scheduled to vote on the issue. "The obvious question is, what's the rush?" he has told the news media.

And some activists have said they would prefer that the vote take place after the Texas Legislature gets back to work, ensuring that legislators, if they desire, could weigh in.

The majority owner of the waste facility is Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who over the past decade has donated more than $1.1 million to Gov. Rick Perry's campaigns, according to Lobby Watch, a publication of the Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Defending the process

Some commissioners and Waste Control Specialists officials have long said the process has been studied and debated for more than a year. The company applied six years ago to dispose of this type of waste.

"We've been working on this rule for 16 months," Commission Chairman Michael Ford has said. "That does not meet my definition of rushed."

"This has been a very lengthy process, and there have been an awful lot of hearings on this," company spokesman Chuck McDonald has said.

If the commission approves the rule change, commissioners will still review individual applications to decide whether states may send low-level waste to Texas.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610