Texas Under Threat of High-Level Radioactive Waste Storage

Originally published April 21, 2014 via TexasVox

Texas is under radioactive waste assault. There is already an existing “low-level” radioactive waste dump owned by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) in Andrews County. Weapons waste from Fernald, Ohio is already buried in one of the three pits there. The facility is now taking nuclear reactor waste from around the country and is accepting Department of Energy waste, including nuclear weapons waste. And there is an adjacent hazardous waste pit, which can accept some 2000 chemicals, many of the toxic or corrosive. WCS expects to make some$15 billion off the site, although Texans bear the risks of contamination and financial liability.

All of this is at a site for which Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) staff originally recommended denial of the license due to concerns about water contamination. There are 2 water bodies are present at the site, the the most significant of which is the southern tip of the massive Ogallala Aquifer.  Although some maps have been drawn to show that the aquifer doesn’t extend as far as the WCS disposal site, water has been present in up to 40% of the monitoring wells on the site, indicating that a hydrological connection could exists.  The site is supposed to be dry for safety reasons, but that hasn’t stopped the TCEQ from granting permits or WCS from burying radioactive waste there.

Now two new threats have emerged, including storage of very hot transuranic waste – which includes plutonium, neptunium, and americium from the failed national repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site.

Texas is getting the transuranic waste unexpectedly. The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a disposal site for transuranic waste that is buried half a mile underground. The site had a fire on February 5th and a major radiation leak 9 days later. At least 21 workers were exposed to radiation. The New Mexico facility has been closed since the accident and the WCS radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, Texas is now taking this same highly radioactive waste and storing it above ground in steel sided buildings, raising concerns about what would happen if there were tornadoes, floods or wildfires.

In addition, now Governor Perry is actively campaigning to bring spent nuclear fuel to Texas for storage. This the hottest, most dangerous of radioactive waste, the kind that was to be sent to the failed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

It is so dangerous that  shielding is required to protect humans from a lethal dose as a result of exposure to spent nuclear fuel. Even 10 years after this waste is removed from a spent fuel pool, the radiation field at one meter away is 20,000 rem/hour. It only takes a quarter of that amount to incapacitate a person immediately and cause the person’s death within one week.

The spent fuel is currently cooled and then kept in dry casks at the sites where it was generated. Storing the waste at the power plant sites raises the risks for people living in those areas, but transporting the waste to a central location increases risks for those living along transportation routes and those near the disposal site. There is simply no safe way to deal with the amount of radioactive waste we are producing in the long term.

The Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee will soon address an interim charge on how to bring this high-level waste to Texas and how much economic benefit there could be. Discussion of the risks isn’t on the agenda. It seems that the committee may be blinded by potential profit for their campaign donors.

Stay tuned and learn more at www.NukeFreeTexas.org

Waste Control Specialists Radioactive Waste Facilities in Andrews County

Texas Compact Low-Level Waste Facility (#11 on photo)
Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal License – R04100 – by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – 9/10/09
• Accepts Class A, B and C from Texas Compact and Federal generators
• Can accept all radionuclides, including for example plutonium, which remains hazardous for half a million years, uranium and cesium.
Low-level does not mean low risk.
• Can accept all nuclear reactor parts except fuel rods. The following can go to a low-level site: reactor containment vessels, poison curtains that absorb radioactivity, piping, sludges, residues and medical waste
• Licensed for 2.31 million cubic feet of waste and up to 3.89 million curies of radioactivity
• Earlier studies found that decommissioning Vermont Yankee and the four existing Texas reactors would require 3 times the licensed volume
• The Texas Legislature privatized the disposal of low-level radioactive waste in 2003 and allowed import of DOE low-level radioactive waste. WCS was the only applicant.

Federal Low-Level Waste Facility (#10 on photo)
Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal License – R04100 9/10/09
• Will accept wastes from reactors and weapons plants managed by the federal government, about to open
• Licensed for 26,000,000 cubic feet of radioactive federal facility waste, up to 5,600,000 curies

Byproduct Facility (#9 on photo)
By-Product Material Disposal Facility License – R05807 – May 29, 2008 – Burial completed.
• Authorized for receipt and disposal of by-product material as defined in Title 30 of the Texas Administrative Code, Section 336.1105
• Up to 30,000 cubic yards (810,000 cubic feet) in 3,776 canisters, and total radioactivity of 13,400 curies.
• Uranium mill tailings or “yellowcake” accepted, as well as radioactive equipment
• 3776 containers of highly radioactive “K-65” weapons waste were sent from Fernald, Ohio for shallow land burial. K-65 ore has a record 65% uranium content, while typical ore contains only .1% uranium

WCS also holds licenses and permits that allow for:
• Processing / storage of radioactive transuranic (TRU) wastes, Greater than Class C wastes, sealed sources
• Treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous industrial waste (over 2,000 RCRA waste codes) with a RCRA part B equivalent permit to receive ignitable, corrosive, toxic and selective hazardous wastes
• Treatment, storage, and land disposal of PCBs and PCB contaminated materials
• Receipt of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants from CERCLA (Superfund sites)

Tonawanda Coke Coal Plant Receives Large Fine for Violating the Clean Air Act in NY

Originally published April 4, 2014 via TexasVox

A coal plant outside of Buffalo, NY was issued one of the largest fines ever imposed criminally on a company for violating the Clean Air Act.

On Wednesday, March 19th, Tonawanda Coke Corp. was fined $12.5 million for knowingly and illegally releasing hundreds of tons of the carcinogen benzene into the air for five years and improperly conducting hazardous sludge on the ground. The company will also pay for two separate environmental studies with a price tag of $12.2 million. These two 10-year studies will look at emissions and examine soil samples.

On top of that, the Tonawanda Coke Corp. environmental controls manager faces a year and a day in jail, 100 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine. He was also found guilty of obstruction of justice for covering up the pollution during plant inspections by regulators.

Community Outrage

Residents have complained about the black soot from the coal plant for a decade and many are worried about the health implications to the community.

In 2005, local residents concerned for their health joined together to form the Clean Air Coalition. They began sampling air quality by using buckets and plastic bags. They also petitioned state and federal agencies to investigate the plants operations. After finding elevated levels of benzene in the community, federal agencies raided the plant in 2009 when levels were 75 times higher than state and federal law permit.

three-year health study completed last year by the State Health Department and Department of Environmental Conservation found elevated rates of lung and bladder cancers in men and women, and elevated esophageal cancer in men and uterine cancer in women.

“Back in 2005, we just wanted a clean environment for us to live. We wanted our air to be cleaner. We wanted to know why everyone was sick. We had no clue they were breaking the law,” Jackie James-Creedon said. James-Creedon is a resident fighting this case, suffers from fibromyalgia and is a resident that submitted one of the 10-year studies.

Repeat Offenders

This is not the first time Tonawanda Coke Corp. has been in the hot seat for environmental violations. Last March the company was found guilty of 11 violations of the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

According to Eli George, producer for WIVB 4, Tonawanda coke hid a unreported pressure relief valve and operated a coke-quenching tower without baffles, a pollution control device. Hazardous waste was stored, treated and disposed without a permit and mixed its coal tar sludge on the ground.

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said, “These two defendants over a period of 10 years released, intentionally, literally hundreds of tons of poisonous benzene gas.”

Last year in April the company was found guilty of 11 violations of the Clean Air Act, three counts for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and a maximum penalty of $295 million in fines while its former environmental manager faced 75 years in prison.

In September, Environmental Advocates group released a report on the one-third cuts on staff in the New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the 75 percent fewer inspections on factories and power plants.

According to North County Public Radio, inspections for power plants were down 44 percent and inspection on potential water pollution sites were down 74 percent while enforcement actions against polluters was found down 24 percent.

Judge William Skretny declined to address the issue of individual harm or designate residents as victims at the sentencing hearing that would give them entitlement to speak. He did however acknowledge the damage inflicted by repeated exposure to cancer-causing toxins between 2005 and 2009.

“Individuals living with the fear of the unknown and the future risk of illness, that’s harm,” the judge said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are also looking into this case.

There will still be a challenge, to the ruling on the criminal case, but prosecutors said the five-year term of probation will give governmental agencies authority to conduct inspections and monitor the plant.

“There’s still more work to be done. This is an important chapter, but the book is not completely written and we have to keep protecting the public’s health, “ EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck said following the sentencing. “We are committed to cleaning the place up.”

Fracking Tour of the Eagle Ford Shale

Originally published March 20, 2014 via TexasVox

Collaboration with Max Anderson

Environment Texas, a statewide citizen-based environmental advocacy group, hosted a fracking action camp Sunday, March 16th,through Monday, March 17th.
Sunday attendees traveled south through Gonzales, Nordheim and Cuero, Texas, to visit the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the largest shale plays in the United States.

The landscape is dotted with well pads, drilling rigs, cranes, flares, storage tanks, waste pits, pipelines, pipeline pumping stations, 18-wheelers, mobiles offices, fences, surveillance cameras, and RV man camps. While some residents have made millions off of royalties from oil and gas leases, others are seeing their property value, health, and the integrity of their land decline.

Halfway between Yorktown and Nordheim, attendees met up with resident Lynn Janssen and were able to ask her questions.

Janssen’s land has been in her family since her grandfather bought it in 1897.  Mrs. Janssen and her neighbors are organizing to stop two large disposal pits from being put next to their property. Their growing concern is about the health consequences of living near a disposal pit for an extended period of time, due to air pollution and water runoff.

Some of these health consequences concerning citizens of Nordheim are air pollution from chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOC) like benzene, toluene, and xylene. VOS’s are known to cause cancer, and many times are emitted into the air by the practice of flaring. There is also concern with the toxic chemicals found in fracking fluid.  However, an even bigger concern is hydrogen sulfide gas, which is deadly in high doses and abundant in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Attendees looked at foam boards filled with maps and disposal well locations in Janssen’s garage. Mrs. Janssen explained some of the pictures on the boards were from 1.1-inch of rain that, in an hour’s time, had streamed from the property designated for a disposal pit site onto her property.

One map that has citizens and Mayor Kathy Payne’s attention is the waste pit sand disposal well that has already been permitted and is under construction, which sits 150 feet from the city limits sign and the high school in this small town.  The mayor is continuing to fight for the air and water for this small community, but it’s an uphill battle.

On Monday, March 17th, attendees met up with Irma Gutierrez, the Director of Outreach for Congressman Pete Gallego, at the Congressman’s office in San Antonio, TX. This gave attendees an opportunity to speak about the issues associated with fracking and what they witnessed the day before in the Eagle Ford Shale region. It also gave an opportunity to lobby an elected official and understand the importance of lobbying.

Attendees spoke about the billions of gallons of fresh water being used in Texas fracking, at a time of drought. The toxic wastewater, which is laced with cancer-causing chemicals is a concern in fracking communities.  The CLEANER Act (HR 2825), a bill by Representative Cartwright (PA), would close the loophole that exempts fracking from the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act and protect communities from toxic fracking waste by regulating it as hazardous.

As reported by The Weather Channel, InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity, air quality is another major concern in the Eagle Ford region.  Toxic air emissions from fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale have doubled since 2009, and air pollution from fracking threatens to push San Antonio out of attainment with the Clean Air Act for the first time in history.

Its no wonder that communities are feeling the negative health and environmental impacts of fracking, given how many exemptions the industry enjoys from our environmental and public health laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and our nation’s hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

The fracking boom in the Eagle Ford Shale has changed communities and altered landscapes. Production in the Eagle Ford Shale had already reached over 1 million barrels per day (bpd) in August 2013, and it is expected to continue expanding as more wells are drilled. Many residents are concerned about the long-term impacts to their health, water, and communities, after the fracking boom goes bust. The fracking boom in the Eagle Ford Shale could be a disaster in the making.

Texas Citizens Affected by Recent Earthquakes Demand Fracking Regulations at the Railroad Commission

Originally published January 28, 2014 via TexasVox

Small towns like Azle and Springtown, in the North Texas area have experienced about 32 earthquakes over the past two months leaving citizens concerned about what is happening to their home.

According to a recent study from the University of Texas, most earthquakes that are coming from the area are a few miles from the Barnett Shale region. The study also found correlation between injection wells and small earthquakes.  These disposal wells contain chemical contaminated wastewater from oil and gas drilling..  This is part of the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

The Railroad Commission has not publicly acknowledge the link between disposal wells and quakes, even with evidence from several studies from Duke University, Cornel University, University of Texas, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University and other universities.

According to a story on NPR StateImpact, studies found that oil and gas wastewater disposal wells are a reason for the Eagle Mountain Lake quakes. Disposal wells that inject at higher rates are likely causing quakes.  Studies show that these large amounts of wastewater can cause inactive faults to slip, which causes an earthquake to occur.

In another NPR StateImpact story by Terrence Henry, he writes that under state law, the Commission cannot suspend a disposal well permit unless the operator is in violation of commission rules. There are currently no rules on seismicity, and without this rule the commission has no authority to shut it down. The article also goes on to say that the Railroad Commission is aware of such studies and research linking disposal wells and other drilling activity to man-made quakes, but publicly calls this evidence “theories.”

A town hall meeting in Azle, Texas hosted by the Texas Railroad Commission on January 2nd drew 850 residents. The residents had concerns about cracks in their property, sinkholes, earthquake insurance, and possibly having their ground water affected.  They wanted the commission to explain what was happening and asked if disposal wells were the reason for the recent problems. Click here to read more.

The Commission told attendees it would further study the issue of injection wells and quakes, but residents felt they were getting a runaround. Days after this first meeting the Commission announced it would hire a seismologist to investigate local drill sites.

The following week, before the second meeting in Austin, State Representative Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, announced the creation of the Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.  This Subcommittee will take measures to review research, past studies, testimony, and input from the Commission and UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology to see if changes are needed regarding the regulation of activities that impact these quakes.  Click here to see NPR StateImpact coverage

On Tuesday January 21st, North Texans organized another meeting in front of state regulators demanding a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing disposal wells until they got answers about the recent earthquakes.  Residents of various ages and backgrounds came to speak about the integrity of oil and gas wells, property values, the need for stronger regulations on injection wells, pollution in water resources, and ways to pay for damages.

Some residents want the Commission to act now and study later. They question what new information the Commission’s hired seismologist expects to find amid the studies and research already done. Residents described the impacts they were experiencing – being woken up at all hours of the night, the concern for the safety of their children, and the sudden appearance and growth of sinkholes in the area, which have grown to about 12-feet.  Linda Stokes, the mayor of Reno asked the Commission, “…to not make citizens of Reno and Azle the guinea pigs for the study.”

Chairman Smitherman said that an injection well moratorium is not within the Commission’s authority, but that they can take action on individual permits. In order for these disposal wells to be shut down as requested, the companies would have to violate their permits from the Commission, but with permits continuing to leave out regulation for seismic activity we have to wait and see what the subcommittee on seismic activity can accomplish.

Click here for more information from Sierra Club’s Texas Green Report.