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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 Sierra Blanca.

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 following:

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 La Paz Agreement..."

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.

Sources:

  1. 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.
  2. Ibid


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