Infrastructure & Environment

Profiting from Radioactive Waste

One Texas county saw a chance to cash in on radioactive waste by hosting a national dump site for it and collecting money from each state that participates.
by | July 2011

When it comes to radioactive waste, no one wants it. That was until one Texas county saw a chance to cash in on the issue by hosting a national dump site for the refuse.

This spring the Texas Legislature approved a measure that would vastly expand the operations of a facility in rural Andrews County, which was designed to house low-level radioactive waste from Texas and Vermont under a compact between the states. Under the new deal, other states would be able to either join the compact for up to $50 million a piece or pay fees to store a more limited amount of waste.

The site could be a boon for the west Texas county, whose population hovers at 15,000. The county will receive 10 percent of the fees paid by each state that joins the waste compact. Additionally, Andrews County and the state government will split a 10 percent surcharge on all waste stored at the facility. County Judge Richard Dolgener says projections indicate his county could receive about $10 million in annual revenue during the facility’s initial years -- a huge sum relative to the county’s $18 million annual budget.

“The reason the county got involved was we were trying to decentralize,” Dolgener says. “Andrews County is probably one of the biggest oil-producing counties.” He estimates that 92 percent of the county’s tax base is somehow tied to the oil industry -- a risky situation given the potential for fluctuations in that market -- so the county seized on the chance to diversify.

The opening of the facility solves a problem many states struggle with: where to store low-level radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and research centers. The storage center at Andrews would create a relatively permanent place to house that waste, and it could be a financial windfall for Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which operates the facility. Nationwide, there are just three other commercial sites open to storing low-level radioactive waste.

Supporters of the deal say allowing states that aren’t part of the compact to store waste at the facility will decrease the costs of disposal for Texas and Vermont tenfold. Meanwhile, the company has argued that it needs to receive waste besides that of the two states to turn a profit on the hundreds of millions of dollars it has already invested in the facility. Under the legislation, the state only regulates rates for waste accepted from Texas and Vermont; WCS sets rates for those states outside the compact. Critics say that’s a sweetheart deal for WCS that was structured to benefit the company and its politically connected owner Harold Simmons, who has donated millions to Republican lawmakers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Critics also say Texas shouldn’t become a dumping ground for the rest of the country’s toxic waste, and they have warned of potential damage to the water supply as a result of the facility. But Dolgener says he is confident that the facility won’t have negative effects on the environment. And, he says, getting involved in the project is fitting for the county. “We’re into energy,” Dolgener says, whether it’s producing it or disposing of its byproducts.

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