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Texas Officials To Vote on Responsibility for Waste Cleanup

By Betsy Blaney/
Associated Press
      LUBBOCK — State environmental officials are to vote to allow the parent company of a radioactive waste operator to guarantee there will be money available to decommission the West Texas site once it closes.
    That's at odds with a recommendation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's own staff, said state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
    "I don't understand why the staff recommendation was ignored," said Duncan, who last year authored a bill giving the commission the authority to regulate and license radioactive wastes. "It seems like to me that (a parent company guarantee) is not what I would call financial assurance."
    Staff recommended that the company, Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, provide the guarantee.
    The commission is scheduled to take up the issue of financial responsibility Wednesday in Austin.
    Commission officials have already granted the company a preliminary license to dispose of Cold War-era uranium byproduct waste in Andrews County near the New Mexico line. Final licensing approval could come next month.
    The materials came from a shuttered government plant in Ohio that processed uranium for use in reactors, producing plutonium for nuclear weapons from the 1950s until 1989. Other wastes the site can take include uranium or thorium mill tailings as well as contaminated equipment, pipe and other items.
    Waste Control Specialists is a subsidiary of Valhi, Inc., owned by Dallas billionaire and major Republican donor Harold Simmons.
    Company spokesman Chuck McDonald said Valhi is valued at more than $3 billion and is well able to cover the costs of shutting down the site when that time comes.
    "The State of Texas is equally or better protected by the parent company guarantee because WCS' parent company has much more financial strength and value than does WCS with a wider range of assets that would be available to perform on WCS' future obligations," McDonald said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
    Duncan said it could have been Glenn Shankle, the commission's executive director, or another official there who recommended the rule change allowing Valhi to assume financial responsibility for decommissioning the site.
    "Ultimately, the commission gets to decide this," Susan Jablonski, head of the state environmental agency's radioactive materials division, said.
    Duncan said he remains hopeful the commission will "do the the right thing. I'm going to wait to see what the commission does. I think there are more options out there that will work.
    "Self insuring is not necessarily what I would call financial assurance."
    The Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club wants the commission to follow a staff recommendation that would have required Waste Control Specialists to find ways to pay decommisioning costs without help from the parent company.
    The environmental group's Cyrus Reed said that would ensure that taxpayers won't be stuck with site costs estimated at under $10 million after its license expires.
    "A financial demonstration or corporate guarantee letter does not provide any actual funds to make sure the radioactive materials which can last thousands of years, are properly managed after the site is closed," Reed said. "We would like to trust that companies will do the right thing and be financially solvent, but the history of clean up of radioactive sites has taught us that the public is better served with actual money in the bank."
    Reed's group also is concerned about ownership of Waste Control, saying mergers, acquisitions or bankruptcy could be problematic.
    But McDonald said Valhi would remain obligated to pay decommission costs, and TCEQ would have to approve any change in the agreement before it could occur.
    "There would be no gap in the coverage of WCS' future obligations," he said.

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