How a radioactive waste fees amendment was tied to a domestic violence bill

May 25, 2019

By Asher Price
Austin American Statesman

An amendment that would delay fees and surcharges paid by a West Texas radioactive waste disposal company to the state managed to squeak onto the domestic-violence-related bill to which it had been appended as the end of the legislative session approached.

With the bill now heading to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature, and the amendment still attached, the waste disposal company has notched a victory.

Senate Bill 1804 would require the entry of certain conditions of bond information into a statewide law enforcement information system and set victim notification requirements. The bill was prompted by concerns among police and family members about the bond conditions of domestic violence offenders.

The bill passed the Senate in April by a vote of 31-0. On May 22, it passed the House 142-0, but not before, on the bill’s third reading, Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, successfully added an amendment that would delay until 2021 certain fees and surcharges related to the disposal of low-level radioactive waste — such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals — at the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews County, in West Texas. The fees are set to go into effect this year, with the money meant to go to a perpetual care account for anything that might go wrong at the Waste Control Specialists site.

The amendment is a cousin of legislation that never got to the floor of the House or Senate. That legislation would have reduced by $4.17 million the fees the company pays the state. Company officials say the legislative fixes are necessary to keep the company competitive with waste sites in other parts of the country.

At a House committee hearing on the legislation in March, Waste Control Specialists President David Carlson said the company has "struggled to lower our prices to compete with the marketplace."

He blamed "unreasonable restrictions" built into statute, including what he called excessive taxes.

The House version of the legislation was carried by Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, whose district includes Andrews.

Nevárez, who represents a bordering district, said Landgraf approached him about carrying the amendment partly because as a committee chairman and bill co-sponsor, he has more legislative muscle.

Environmental groups have long opposed radioactive waste at the site, which they say could jeopardize groundwater.

In introducing the amendment in the Texas House, Nevárez told members that "this is an amendment that clarifies that it offers some economic competitive incentives in the bill."

He told House members the amendment was "acceptable to the author" — he himself was a House co-sponsor of SB 1804.

On Saturday, Nevárez told the American-Statesman that the strange fit between the amendment and the bill was not unusual: "You try to catch a ride where you can. If someone had objected to the germane-ness, the amendment does not go on. It’s within the rules, and it’s what we do. It’s a common occurrence."

He said that if the delay in fee-paying "will let them maintain some stability out there and jobs, then it’s worth doing."

"We do that a lot over here," Nevárez continued. "We kick industries in the butt in good ways and bad ways."

Saturday evening, with a key end-of-session deadline looming, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, decided to accept the House version of her bill — with the Nevárez amendment attached — rather than opt for a conference committee, in which lawmakers from both chambers would have had to hammer out an agreement or the bill could die altogether.

Asked whether the Nevárez amendment was unexpected, she told the American-Statesman on Saturday afternoon: "Yes."

Ultimately, keen to send her domestic violence bill to the governor for his signature, and with the legislative deadline looming, she declared in the Senate that she concurred with the House version.

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