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Former oil town eyes radioactive waste

A West Texas town that grew up on oil, may hang its hopes on what some folks believe is their next boom: storage and disposal of radioactive waste.
Uranium byproduct waste from an Ohio plant would be transported in these containers, possibly to a West Texas town.
Uranium byproduct waste from an Ohio plant would be transported in these containers, possibly to a West Texas town.David Hinaman / Fluor Fernald via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This small West Texas town grew its economy on oil but may hang its hopes on what some folks believe is their next boom: storage and disposal of radioactive waste.

Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists owns 14,400 acres about 30 miles outside town near the New Mexico border. About 1,340 acres have been set aside for hazardous waste storage and disposal, and the company will manage tons of federal uranium byproduct waste by year’s end.

Rather than a “not in my backyard” stance, some residents believe the waste site will generate dozens of jobs from spin-off industries, and city leaders anticipate it will pump millions into the economy.

“If we thought we could get an NFL franchise or a Riverwalk, we wouldn’t have looked at this industry,” said Russell Shannon, vice president of the Andrews Industrial Foundation. “We just believe it will bring us some jobs, bring people to our community to get involved in an industry, like they did with oil.”

Once oil leader
Andrews was incorporated in 1937, about eight years after oil was struck. By 1956, the county led the nation in oil production, pumping more than 60 million barrels annually.

The oil boom lasted through the 1960s, fell off and then picked up again. Gradually the oil business dwindled, along with the town’s population. In the late 1990s, Andrews hit another national high, this time with double-digit unemployment, as oil prices sunk to $8 a barrel.

Many hope the radioactive waste site can turn around Andrews’ fortunes. Residents recently learned that it was tapped to store tons of uranium byproduct waste now at the abandoned Fernald federal plant, just northwest of Cincinnati. Shipments could begin later this month.

The Ohio plant processed and purified uranium metal for use in reactors to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons from the 1950s until 1989.

Waste Control Specialists has an application pending with the Texas Department of State Health Services to dispose of the waste. A decision could come early next year.

If approved, some lawmakers want the state to profit from the transfer. However, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, a Democrat, has introduced a bill to limit radioactive waste storage and disposal in Texas.

Site would be 5 times bigger
Waste Control has stored, treated and disposed of hazardous waste at the Andrews site since 1997. Earlier this year, the state approved the company’s request to expand the storage capacity to 1.5 million cubic feet — nearly five times its current size — making it eligible to accept the Ohio waste. The space is the equivalent of about 800 railroad cars.

George Dials, president and chief executive officer for Waste Control, said the expansion was necessary for the company’s long-term plans to assist federal plants with site clean up and disposal of low-level waste.

Andrews appears to have little competition. Nevada officials threatened a lawsuit if the Energy Department sent the waste to a government-run site north of Las Vegas. Residents near a private waste site in Clive, Utah — west of Salt Lake City — also rejected it.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry about how the waste will effect the air, soil and water.

An 800-foot-deep layer of red clay rises to near the surface at the Andrews waste site, which city leaders and company officials say makes the site geologically sound.

Expert fears fractures
But Melanie Barnes, a geology researcher at Texas Tech University, said surface fractures exist. A major concern is that if the waste seeps through the soil, it could affect neighboring aquifers, including a primary source of drinking water in West Texas.

Peggy Pryor, 54, has lived in Andrews most of her life, and she believes no good can come from any type of radioactive waste.

“It’s all about money and how much money they can make, and it’s not about the environment at all,” said Pryor, a retired cardiac technician. “It just tears me up.”

Dials countered, saying the clay is sound: “By and large there are no fractures that lead anywhere and we’re confident in the design.”

Cyrus Reed, a Sierra Club lobbyist, said waste sites with clay beds in Maxey Flats, Ky., and West Valley, N.Y., also were touted as impermeable. Years after they opened, contaminated groundwater was found at each.

“The point is there were previous sites where people had made predictions that they were good sites, and there would be no problems and there were problems,” Reed said.