Bush Romances the Atom in Texas
This week PEER examines how aggressive efforts by lobbyists representing
Governor Bush worked with the utility industry to successfully push
through federal legislation that could make Texas the largest low-level
radioactive waste dumpsite in the country.
When George W. Bush was inaugurated as Texas Governor in 1995, one of
the first federal initiatives he undertook on behalf of Texas industry
was attempting to pass federal legislation creating the Texas-Maine-Vermont radioactive waste compact to fund construction of a radioactive waste dump in the small Texas border town
Bigger is better- the economics of nuclear disposal
Congress, in response to industry pressure passed legislation in 1980 and 1985 that encouraged States to join regional compacts to dispose of low-level
radioactive waste. If Texas could develop a licensed disposal site for
the waste generated by three states in the proposed Texas--
Vermont--Maine compact, it would be worth a guaranteed $50 million for construction and hundreds of millions in disposal fees.
Bush and his official lobbyist in Washington DC took the lead in making sure the compact bill,
which had been defeated by a two-thirds majority when Bush first took office in 1995, was not only revived, but passed.
The state strategy Nuclear Dump is clean and safe
In 1996, The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC)
issued a license for the Sierra Blanca dump and stated that it would "not
pose an unacceptable risk to public health or safety or cause long-term
detrimental impact on the environment."
Critics of the agency marveled at how the agency conveniently ignored
the fact that there is an earthquake fault directly beneath the site.
TNRCC Executive Director Dan Pearson called the fault "a bedrock
anomaly." But the site also had other problems. At Sierra Blanca
"low-level" radioactive waste --which contains elements like plutonium, and some of which remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands to millions of years--would be buried in unlined
40- foot trenches in an active earthquake zone, over an aquifer, five miles from Sierra Blanca and 16 miles from the Rio Grande river and international border.
The Bush Plan We'll take the lead
Bush's team of lobbyists worked the US Congress on an almost daily
basis for two years to ensure that the dump would be built and that
it would be able to service the nuclear power industry nation-wide.
In November 1996, Roy Coffee, head of the Austin Office of State-Federal
Relations, the official lobby agency for the State of Texas, at the
direction of the Governor's office became the Coordinator for Texas lobbying
strategy on the compact and officially joined the Compact Coalition--a
DC-based group of nuclear utility lobbyists and lobbyists for the states
of Maine and Vermont.
In a weekly report, Holmes Brown the director of State and Federal
Programs for Afton Associates Inc
. under contract for the State of
Vermont summarizes his activity for the week of Nov 10, 1996 as the
· Discussed by phone with the Commissioner for Vermont the designation
of the Director of the Austin Office of the Texas Office of
State-Federal Relations as the Texas coordinator of lobbying strategy
for the Texas Compact consent legislation and related issues including
the previously listed conversation with the representative of the Austin
office of the Governor. (1)
November 17, 1996:
· Met at Afton's offices with the Director of the Austin office of the
Texas Office of State-Federal Relations, a staff person from the
Washington Office of the Governor of Texas and a utility lobbyist based
in Texas to discuss lessons learned from lobbying activities of the past
year, the resources that could be provided to the Compact Coalition by
Afton at the behest of the State of Vermont, and a possible chronology
and strategy for introduction of the Texas Compact consent language in
the upcoming session of Congress. (2)
These weekly reports from Holmes Brown establish a pattern of lobbying
coordination that stretches through Sept 22, 1997, and it paid off.
After years of work by the Governor's office and nuclear industry to
overcome grassroots opposition to the compact, the US House finally
passed the bill in 1997.
International relations crisis on the border
While Governor Bush worked the West Texas campaign trail in his quest for another term as Governor,
he was plagued with questions about Sierra Blanca. On February 5, 1998 he justified
to the Associated Press the Sierra Blanca site as a solution to a supposed
low-level radioactive waste "crisis" in El Paso.
"Gov. George W. Bush said he believes the Sierra Blanca site will be
safe. 'Otherwise, we won't move forward,' he said. 'But such a facility is
needed,' Bush said. 'As I told the [Mexican] Ambassador, much of the discussion is about
disposal of, for example, X-rays. And there's tons of X-rays piled up in
El Paso hospitals as we speak today,' he said. "This is low-level
radioactive waste. This is not high-powered plutonium. But I agree with the
Ambassador's assessment it has to be safe," he said.
However, Pete Duarte, the CEO of Thomason Hospital - the local county hospital - explained that he was unaware of any problems. "I am not aware that this is occurring. Nobody has brought to my attention that we have a problem with radioactive waste. If we are creating a problem, I want to know about it. I don't want to dump it on our neighbors. The last place I would want the waste to go would be to Sierra Blanca."
The federal strategy- the personal touch
While the DC lobby effort was moving forward there were several hurdles
left if Texas was going to become the nations' premier nuclear waste
dump. One of the most significant was an amendment to the House bill
offered by Rep. Lloyd Doggett from Texas.
He amended the bill to limit the amount of waste eligible to come to
Texas to to waste from ONLY the states of Maine and Vermont--the supposed
intention of the bill in the first place. The US Senate unanimously accepted the amendment and approved the amended compact in early 1998, but the bill was sent to a joint
House-Senate conference committee to come up with a compromise bill.
Governor Bush lobbied the conference committee asking the committee
members to remove amendments limiting the amount of waste--despite
longstanding tradition in Congress that a small conference committee
does not change language agreed upon by both the House and Senate.
In a letter from Governor Bush to Representative Thomas Bliley sent on
April 22, 1998 he stated that:
"...we are writing to you as Chairman of the house Commerce Committee to express our concerns regarding the amendments to H.R. 629, the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact...Our primary concerns is the effect these amendments will have on the compact...Our secondary concern is the infringement on state sovereignty if the conference committee accepts these amendments...We urge you to support removal of these amendments in the conference committee and to support quick passage of the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact..."
International incident Bush doublespeak
At the same time he was lobbying Congress in the United States, state and federal officials in Mexico were organizing opposition.
The Mexican National Chamber of Deputies (equivalent to the US
House of Representatives) on April 27 and Senate on April 30 unanimously
passed a resolution against the Sierra Blanca dump. The resolution
charged that a "multi-party commission of legislators be formed with the purpose
of meeting with the Governor of Texas, George Bush, with the purpose of
telling him that the Mexican Senate believes that the Sierra Blanca project
violates the spirit of the commitments made with the signing of the
Due to strong Bush lobbying against the amendments, and despite several
visits to DC by federal Mexican Senators and representatives against the
dump and the compact, the conference committee stripped both amendments
on June 17, 1998 and passed a Texas-Maine-Vermont compact bill that would allow Texas to become the dumping ground for the entire United States.
On June 26, 1998, Gov. Bush attended the Border Governors conference in
Brownsville, TX--a meeting of Mexican and US governors. The press
conference was dominated by questions from Mexican reporters about the
dump. The El Paso Times wrote: "Bush said he agrees with the spirit of
an amendment by US Rep. Lloyd Doggett that would restrict the proposed
compact to low-level nuclear waste from those three states." Bush: "If
it passes without that amendment, I think it makes sense for the governor to propose a bill out of the Texas Legislature that forever limits low-level radioactive waste to Texas,
Maine, and Vermont."
In September 1998 President Clinton signed the Texas-Vermont-Maine
compact into law. On October 12, 1998 -- 8 federal Mexican officials begin
a hunger strike in front of Governor's mansion in Austin
. They were joined by many
other Mexican officials
, community leaders, and indigenous religious dancers.
On October 17, a month before gubernatorial election in Texas, Sierra Blancans and their allies throughout
the US and Mexico were stunned when the TNRCC Commissioners agreed with administrative judges who recommended
rejection of the Sierra Blanca license. However, the victory was short-lived. Texas remains the designated
host for the nation's nuclear waste, and private companies are now clamoring to open new dumps to take not
only commercial power plant waste, but also federal nuclear weapons waste.
- Summary of Activities of Holmes Brown, Director of State and Federal Programs for Afton Associates Inc., Under Contract #0960302 for the State of Vermont. Weeks of Nov 1 -Nov 17, 1996.
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