AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - The Sierra Club continues its four-year battle against the licensing of two low-level radioactive dumps near the Texas-New Mexico state line, now claiming that a local agency has pushed for approval of the license by redefining the saturation buffer zone required around the facility.
Earlier this month, the nonprofit won a small victory after the Travis County District Court reversed the issuance of the license to Waste Control Specialists LLC based on a complaint Sierra Club filed in July 2008, in which it claimed that it had been cheated out of a hearing. The district court reportedly agreed, finding that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should have heard Sierra Club out before issuing the license.
Now Sierra Club claims that the commission's approval of the license is also invalid because the waste company failed to comply with buffer zone requirements under the radioactive material license, according to the complaint, filed in Travis County District Court.
Waste Control Specialists first applied for a license to authorize the disposal of low-level radioactive waste in August 2004, the non-profit says. Its two disposal facilities are located five miles east of Eunice, New Mexico and 30 miles west of the city of Andrews, Texas.
One facility is set up to accept commercial disposal of low-level radioactive waste, which includes nuclear reactor water treatment residues, medical tubes, injection needles and lab animal carcasses, and is subject to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact, according to the complaint. The second center will accept low-level radioactive waste that is the responsibility of the federal government, the non-profit says.
In its initial request for a contested hearing regarding the waste company's license application, Sierra club explained "that it has at least two members ... who would potentially be harmed in ways not shared by the general public by the approval of WCS's application." Both members live near the dumps and use local groundwater, the enviros claim.
"Importantly," the petition states, "the license does not authorize WCS to commence waste disposal operations. Rather, the license includes a number of conditions that WCS must comply with before it is authorized to commence waste disposal operations."
"The TCEQ Executive Director [Zak Covar], in the environmental analysis and in his response to comments received, acknowledged that numerous potentially-significant aspects of the subsurface hydrogeology regime were not yet fully characterized," Sierra Club claims. The executive director even "recommended additional license conditions for additional characterization of the subsurface area before construction commences," according to the complaint.
"Among the provisions included in the license is the requirement that if saturated conditions are detected in the buffer zone of the facilities, WCS must cease all waste disposal operations and immediately notify the Executive Director," the enviro group claims.
Although the commission discovered water in the buffer zone in 2011, Sierra Club says that the waste company pushed to continue with its construction and disposal plans as it pumped out the water, which had been deemed an "Area of Concern."
"It is worth noting," the non-profit states, "that as late as March 2012, WCS continued to admit that saturated conditions were detected in the Buffer Zone of the facility. And WCS informed TCEQ that it would take 18 months to evacuate the water. Yet, WCS never intended to cease waste disposal operations, in spite of the fact that the license prohibits waste disposal if saturated conditions are detected."
Even though water was "detected within the facility footprint," the commission authorized WCS to begin accepting waste on April 25, Sierra Club claims.
"The justification for this decision is less than clear," the petition states. "Written communications by the Executive Director, however, reveal an inconsistent interpretation of the license provisions - one that had not been previously expressed by TCEQ staff nor by WCS."
In a letter to the judge presiding over the case, the executive director says "that there has been no detection of saturated conditions within 100 feet from the 'constructed Compact Waste Disposal Facility cell,'" according to the complaint. However, the nonprofit says the definition of the so-called "cell" in unclear. Sierra Club says that Covar appeared to have "implicitly revised" license requirements and the location of the buffer zone.
"This new interpretation of the license is not supported by the language in the license," nor is it supported by written communications between the commission's staff and the waste company, the environmentalist group says.
Sierra Club claims it was not given notice of any license requirement revisions and, even if the new interpretation is accurate, WCS has failed to comply with license provisions because it does not have proper monitoring wells within 100 feet of the disposed waste.
"Moreover, the temporary observation wells do not support WCS's hypothesis that there are no saturated conditions in this area," the petition states. Sierra Club's expert, George Rice, found groundwater not only within the buffer zone, but also within the facility itself, the group says.
"Mr. Rice's report provides further evidence of the existence of saturated conditions at the compact-waste facility. Yet, TCEQ has, to date, refused to rescind or overturn its decision authorizing WCS to commence waste disposal activities," the lawsuit states.
The waste project came under fire in a separate case in January 2011 when two civil rights groups claimed there was a connection between Governor Rick Perry and Waste Control Specialists' owner, Harold Simmons, a political contributor. The civil rights activists accused the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission of blocking public dissent on the importation of radioactive waste into the state by listing an incorrect email address to wh