TEXAS LOW-LEVEL RADIOACTIVE WASTE DISPOSAL AUTHORITY
TEXAS LOW-LEVEL RADIOACTIVE WASTE DISPOSAL AUTHORITY. As technology has progressed, medical and research institutions, as well as some industries, have begun producing larger amounts of low-level radioactive waste. This waste included contaminated machinery parts, protective clothing and gloves, filters, waste paper, test tubes, waste from animals used in experiments and their carcasses, syringes, linens, and many similar items. In 1980 Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, making each state responsible for the disposal of its own low-level radioactive waste. The federal government was still responsible for the disposal of waste that exceeded the "low-level" categories. Low-level radioactive waste material has three classifications: Class A, the least hazardous, contains short-lived radionuclides that will decay in a relatively short time; Class B is more hazardous and must be in a stable form before being placed in disposal canisters; Class C is the most hazardous of the low-level radioactive wastes and must also be in a stable form before disposal. Classes B and C made up only a small percentage of the total volume of low-level waste, but accounted for the largest portion of the total radioactivity. In response to federal law, the Texas legislature established the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority in 1981. The authority was governed by a six-member board of directors appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. By statute, one member must be a doctor licensed to practice in Texas, one a certified health physicist, one an attorney licensed to practice in Texas, one a geologist, and two representatives of the general public. The authority was responsible for identifying potential disposal sites in Texas, for determining the viability of each site, for constructing, operating, and maintaining proper facilities at the site selected, and for decommissioning the site when full. During the next three years the authority conducted a search for potential sites, finding the most likely areas in west, south, and northwest Texas. Because site development in many states was so slow, the United States Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act in 1985, setting deadlines for states to meet with regard to the completion of various stages of the disposal projects. In hopes of speeding the process, the Texas legislature required the authority to give preference to land already owned by the state, causing the search to focus primarily on far west Texas, where most state land was located. Early in 1987 the authority proposed a site eleven miles northeast of Fort Hancock in Hudspeth County. A court injunction by El Paso County delayed the proceedings for nearly a year, but was denied by the Texas Supreme Court in 1988. The authority began a public information campaign in Hudspeth County in mid-1988 and completed numerous technical studies (at a cost of about $1.8 million). The site near Fort Hancock was officially identified in May 1990 as the authority's preferred location of the disposal facility. Protests and court actions by El Paso and Hudspeth counties continued to delay the project, and at the prompting of Governor Ann Richards, the authority began to look for an alternative location in 1991. In August 1991 the authority chose a 16,000 acre site near the town of Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County, eighty miles east of El Paso. The authority's board of directors approved the purchase of the land in February 1992 and submitted a preliminary license application to the Texas Department of Health in March of that year. The disposal facility was scheduled to open by July 1996. In the meantime, the authority planned to offer grazing leases on more than 14,000 acres of the land and was continuing technical studies on the remaining 2,000 acres.
In 1993, in order to avoid the possibility of Texas's becoming a radioactive dumping ground for the entire country, the authority drafted an agreement to form a compact between Maine, Vermont, and Texas, making Texas the disposal site for the low-level radioactive waste generated by those three states. The compact would allow Texas to refuse acceptance of waste from noncompact members. The legislature approved the compact in May 1993 and established a six-member Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission to administer the agreement; the bill was signed into law by Governor Richards in June. Under the terms of the compact, Maine and Vermont would each pay $25 million toward the development, operation, and closure of the disposal facility and an additional $2.5 million each for community development projects in Hudspeth County; they would also make contributions toward improved fire and ambulance services in Hudspeth County. Other states, some of whom generated large amounts of radioactive waste, asked to join the Texas compact, offering millions of dollars for the privilege; however, in the interest of keeping the amount of waste to a minimum, these states were excluded. Even the total waste accepted from Maine and Vermont was restricted to 20 percent per year of the waste that Texas itself produced. Texas retained the right to set disposal fees.