Hazardous New York waste to go to West TexasState could become a top dump for dangerous material.
By Asher Price
Sunday, February 08, 2009
A project to bury tons of contaminated Hudson River bottom amid the rock of West Texas, seemingly biblical in its scope, could make the state one of the largest receptacles for hazardous waste in the country.
As early as May, Waste Control Specialists, a politically connected company that owns a waste dump near Andrews, about 30 miles north of Odessa, will receive the first shipments of toxic Hudson River sediment from upstate New York.
Under an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, General Electric will scoop up miles of soil laced with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. The EPA says GE's plants discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977. PCBs were banned in the late 1970s.
Starting in the late spring, an 81-car train laden with the soil will leave New York for West Texas once a week until November. GE and the EPA will then evaluate the operation, and it could continue, with a train leaving every 2½ days, week in and week out, with a break in winter months, from 2010 until 2015.
The EPA and GE will decide whether the first phase of cleanup operations met standards for how many PCBs can get kicked up by dredging, met expectations for how efficiently the PCBs are removed and met limits on how many PCBs are left on the river bottom, said David Kluesner, an EPA spokesman. They will also decide whether the project is meeting quality of life standards in upstate New York regarding lighting, odor and local economic impact.
The GE deal and another agreement to import radioactive waste from Ohio, both involving Waste Control Specialists, could make Texas one of the top hazardous waste importers in the nation. The state now ranks 10th, according to 2007 EPA data, the most recent available. Ohio, Idaho and Pennsylvania were the top three. But with its wide-open spaces and business-friendly climate, Texas appears set to catch up.
Neither Waste Control Specialists nor GE is saying how much the disposal deal is worth, but EPA spokeswoman Kris Skopeck estimates the entire cleanup will cost as much as $750 million.
The EPA specified in its 2002 cleanup plan that the sediment had to be disposed of outside the Hudson Valley in an approved, permitted facility designed to accept PCB materials. The agency also said the material had to be transported by rail or barge (no trucks).
"The PCB materials could have gone to any number of facilities as close as western New York state or to Texas or several other facilities around the country. It was not EPA's decision where to dispose," Kluesner said.
The agency could have disallowed the choice had the facility not been in compliance or not been an approved site, he said.
But it was GE that put the disposal out to bid and made the choice, based on a number of factors, including transportation methods and cost, he said.
Waste Control Specialists "was chosen based on its strong environmental and safety records, proximity to rail and cost-effectiveness," said Mark Behan, a company spokesman.
Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is drafting a letter to ask the EPA to put together an environmental impact statement — a document describing environmental effects — about the shipment of the waste.
He said the EPA could order that the PCBs be cleaned up using other kinds of technology rather than shipping the sediment to Texas.
"They don't need to be moving this stuff across the country," he said. "One accident and they have a disaster to pick up."
A spokesman for Waste Control Specialists said rail transporters do not want to disclose the exact train route for security reasons. The material is not expected to travel through Austin.
When it was awarded the contract by GE in late 2007, Waste Control Specialists said it was the company's largest disposal contract since its West Texas facility opened in 1997. The company says it has room for the estimated 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the Hudson River. That's enough hazardous waste to cover a football field, including end zones, to a depth of 1,031.25 feet — or almost twice the height of the Frost Bank Tower.
The oil town of Andrews, smack-dab in the Permian Basin, has long pinned its fortunes on the oil and gas industry. Other top employers, which contribute to the tax base and a local education foundation, include Waste Control Specialists and the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Co. Recent activity at Waste Control Specialists to ready the site for the PCB soil and other waste has added about 80 jobs, said Wesley Burnett, director of the Andrews Economic Development Corp., whose board is appointed by city officials.
Thorough groundwater and soil tests around the disposal site, about 30 miles from Andrews, have led the town to "be very comfortable with it," he said. "We don't feel threatened."
Ted Dracos, a journalist who lives in Concan, about 20 miles north of Uvalde, and whose book about PCBs, "Biocidal," will be published next year by the University of California Press, said that they are "nasty, nasty critters" and worried that they could taint the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches through the area, with "irreversible toxic contamination."
But regulators have said the site passes groundwater contamination tests.
Waste Control Specialists is owned by investor Harold Simmons, who was the third-largest single contributor to Gov. Rick Perry during the 2006 election cycle, donating $315,000, according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics. Since 2001, Simmons' contributions to Perry have totaled more than $500,000.
Last year the company got the go-ahead from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose members are appointed by the governor, to take radioactive waste at its dump site.
A low-level radioactive waste dump in South Carolina closed to most states in 2008, opening the way for Texas to get a share of the lucrative market. (Transport and disposal of the PCB waste falls largely under federal jurisdiction.)
Meanwhile, Veolia Environmental Services, a French company, has asked the EPA for permission to import 40 million pounds of waste from Mexico for incineration at Port Arthur. Among the pollutants are PCBs.
Texas companies generated 13,272,307 tons of hazardous waste in 2007, much of it associated with the Gulf Coast's petrochemical industry. Most of the waste is disposed of in Texas by, among other methods, deep underground injection or incineration, but it is also shipped to other states.