Radioactive waste storage bill derailed in the Texas House on a technicality
May 5, 2021
Some saw the legislation as a "Trojan horse" that would bring high-level radioactive waste to Texas. But the bill’s author disputed that argument.
John C. Moritz
Corpus Christi Caller Times
AUSTIN — Contentious legislation that would have given financial breaks to the company that operates the storage site for low-level radioactive waste in remote West Texas was derailed Wednesday on a procedural technicality in the state House.
The maneuver to knock down House Bill 2692 short-circuited what had been expected to be a freewheeling floor debate over whether the bill would have provided a backdoor to bringing the most dangerous waste from decommissioned nuclear power plants to Texas.
Federal regulators are reviewing plans to sell retiring nuclear reactors to nuclear waste management company for quicker decommissioning. Questions have been raised about whether the companies have the experience and funds to do the job.
The legislation’s author, state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican who represents the site in Andrews County, insisted it would expressly ban such waste from Texas. And he said he was "mystified" that anyone would interpret it otherwise.
"We want to make sure safety is a top priority … not only at the facility but (while waste is) transported to the facility," Landgraf said before the bill was scuttled.
The legislation was designed to grant Waste Control Specialists, the company that operates the Andrews County site, a break on surcharges and fees levied by the state on the revenue it takes in to handle the waste. The company said it needs the breaks to remain competitive in the face of out-of-state competition.
But even before the measure was brought to the House floor, it was the subject of intense lobbying on behalf of the company and by forces seeking to defeat it.
In something of an odd alliance, several environmental groups opposed to reducing the surcharges and fees, much of which goes into a fund to ensure that the dumpsite will be safely maintained in perpetuity, were joined by oil and gas interests active in drilling in the energy-rich Permian Basin, which includes Andrews County.
Fasken Oil and Ranch, a family-owned company that is one of the largest private landowners in Andrews County, mounted an intensive campaign through a nonprofit entity called "Not Our Trash" that ran TV ads in several Texas markets against the bill.
In a news release announcing the ad campaign, the group called Waste Control Specialists a private waste company that "is lobbying to unravel good law" that has been on the books for more than a decade in the effort to reduce its fees and surcharges.
"By gutting important safety regulations and dumping radioactive waste in an open pit, they are turning a blind eye to that contaminated material potentially being carried by the wind onto our grazing lands, our ranches and farmlands, and our communities," said Fasken executive
Tommy Taylor, who also is president of the nonprofit.
Dave Carlson, the chief operating officer for Waste Control Specialists, said in a statement to the USA TODAY Network that such claims were misrepresenting what the legislation would do.
"This bill does not make any changes to the safety of the facility, the most robust low-level waste facility ever constructed," Carlson said. "The existing statute puts the Texas facility at an overwhelming competitive disadvantage to the primary competitor. You’d be hard pressed to find another company who pays 31% of its revenue in taxes in this state or in any state."
Karen Hadden director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, called the bill "a nuclear Trojan Horse."
“When you open it up you find that the ban on high level nuclear waste is written deceptively and won’t work," she said. "It will double the amount of permitted waste, weaken state regulations and cheat the state of the money it will need to clean up the mess.”
The Andrews County site does handle low-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants and other facilities. But Landgraf, when he began explaining the legislation to House members, also noted that it also receives radioactive materials from x-rays used in medical and dental offices from virtually every community in Texas along with materials used in manufacturing and even from oil and gas drilling.
Still, he acknowledged the concerns of the bill’s opponents and promised to revise some of its provisions on the fly in the effort to alleviate them.
But state Rep. Tom Craddick, the House’s longest serving member who represents Midland in the heart of the Permian Basin, made reference to Waste Control Specialists’ application pending before the federal Nuclear Regulatory Committee to build and operate a high-level waste facility in Andrews County.
A federal permit would likely trump a state ban on such waste, Craddick told Landgraf just before he pointed out the procedural flaw that derailed the bill. In short, the official bill analysis that explains the details of legislation to House members was found to be misleading and missing key details. That meant House rules prevented members from debating it it and taking a vote.
It was not immediately clear whether the House bill could be revived and perhaps considered in the final four weeks of the 2021 legislative session. A similar measure is pending in the Senate, but it has been removed from the chamber’s agenda, a signal that it lacks the votes needed to be considered for debate.
Carlson, after the bill was derailed in the House, said his company intends to press forward on the matter.
"Our interests and the state’s interests are aligned and we are committed to working closely with the our community, our regulators and the state of Texas to ensure the facility remains viable, safe and an asset to the state’s economy," he said.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.
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