In a bit of good news for the environment, work got underway this week to clean up hazardous PCB pollution that General Electric dumped into New York’s Upper Hudson River.

But there’s also some bad news — which is that the toxic waste is being sent to a landfill that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a key drinking-water source for West Texas.

“This is like a shell game, moving hazardous toxic PCBs from one sensitive location to another,” said Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist with Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “We are concerned about contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer and other aquifers in this dry region of Texas that needs to protect and conserve water for drinking and agricultural uses.”

The company that operates the landfill also recently won approval to dump radioactive waste there, intensifying the controversy surrounding the facility.

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The $750 million Hudson River dredging project aims to scrape up almost 250,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, chemicals once used in electrical equipment that are known to build up in the body and cause cancer, damage the immune system and lead to reproductive disorders. The cleanup is being overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The start of Hudson River dredging is a symbol of victory for the environment and for its river communities,” said acting EPA Regional Administrator George Pavlou. “Dredging will help restore the health of the river, and will one day allow people to eat fish that are caught between Fort Edward and Albany. This is an historic day for an historic river.”

The sediment scraped up from the bottom of the Hudson will be carried by barge to a facility in Fort Edward, N.Y., where the water will be removed and treated. The contaminated soil will then be loaded onto a train and shipped some 2,000 miles to the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) landfill in Andrews County, along the Texas border with New Mexico.

While WCS officials have insisted that the landfill does not sit atop the Ogallala Aquifer, an investigation by TV news station KCBD confirmed that it actually does. Also known as the High Plains Aquifer, the Ogallala is one of the largest aquifers in the world, underlying about 174,000 square miles of land in eight states. It provides drinking water for many communities in West Texas, including the city of Lubbock.

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The placement of the WCS dump on the Andrews County site has proven controversial. In fact, Glen Lewis — a longtime official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who was involved in the investigation for the WCS facility — was one of at least three TCEQ employees who quit their jobs after the agency granted the company permits to dump low-level radioactive waste there earlier this year, KCBD reports:

“All of our time has been wasted. We’ve all been played for suckers, we’ve all been pointless impediments to a process that resulted in issuing this license from the first day,” Lewis explains.

Low-level radioactive waste is everything radioactive in a nuclear power plant except for the highly radioactive fuel. It includes pipes that carry radioactive water and even the entire reactor itself when it’s dismantled, and contains the same radioactive elements present in high-level waste but at lower concentrations. The WCS facility is also licensed to take highly radioactive waste from weapons facilities, according to Sierra’s Lone Star chapter.

Lewis found that that runoff from the dump drains into two groundwater sources, including the Ogallala. While WCS claims that hundreds of feet of red clay as well as man-made barriers sit between the dump and the water, Lewis maintains that the groundwater may in fact be as close as 14 feet from the bottom of the proposed dump. And as we reported recently in another story about landfills, the EPA has acknowledged that man-made barriers eventually fail.

Adding to the controversy over the dump, WCS will be using public money for its construction. This month the voters of Andrews County approved a $75 million bond to finance the dump. The bond issue passed by a mere three votes, with 642 people in favor of the project and 639 against it, a margin confirmed last week in a recount. The special election was paid for by WCS.

Among the groups opposing the deal was No Bonds for Billionaires, which points out that WCS is a subsidiary of Valhi Inc., a diversified Dallas-based company owned by billionaire businessman Harold Simmons. The grassroots group’s website says:

…Simmons can’t find any investors. So, instead of reaching into his own pocket to finance his project, he wants to reach into yours for the $75 million he needs. This amount averages out to about $16,000 per Andrews County household.

That averages out to about $16,000 per Andrews County household — slightly more than the county’s per capita income of $15,916, according to the most recent census data. More than 46% of Andrews County’s population is Latino, and more than 15% of its residents live in poverty.

In a 2006 interview with the Dallas Business Journal, Simmons discussed the hurdles he had to surmount to get the radioactive waste dump deal:

It took us six years to get legislation on this passed in Austin, but now we’ve got it all passed. We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license (to handle radioactive waste), and we did that. Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied.

Speaking earlier this year at a press conference in Andrews County organized by environmental groups, Nuclear Information and Resource Service chemist Diane D’Arrigo warned of the dump’s long-term risks to the community.

“Texas’ waste dump in Andrews County calls for a private company to manage a low-level dump, but the company would only be licensed to operate it for 15 years,” she said. “They could then renew their license or decide to close the dump and walk away, leaving a toxic mess to the state of Texas. This could also happen if the company just folds up and vanishes into the night.”

And Valhi has been having its share of financial troubles lately. Earlier this year, for example, Standard & Poor’s lowered its corporate credit ratings on the company from a B to a B- and placed the ratings on CreditWatch with negative implications.

Valhi recently reported a net loss of $20 million for the first quarter of 2009 along with a drop in sales for its waste management division. But it pointed to the approval of the radioactive waste dump in Andrews County as one way it hopes to cut the division’s operating losses.

(This story originally appeared at Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies.)

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