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Lawmaker Wants Papers On Radioactive Dump Released

AUSTIN (AP) – A lawmaker said Monday he has confidential documents detailing state officials' concerns about possible groundwater contamination at a radioactive waste dump in West Texas, and is seeking official permission to release them.

State Rep. Lon Burnam wrote a letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott asking him to waive the confidentiality agreement for documents expressing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's concerns about Waste Control Specialists LLC's application to build the site in rural Andrews County near the New Mexico border.

Burnam, a Democrat from Fort Worth, said he obtained the documents under a 2009 open records request -- and only after years of legal battles. He said he's not allowed to release what's in them but said they contain officials' concerns about the location of groundwater tables near the dump site; the margin of safety in the event of groundwater contamination; and the possible risk of public exposure to radiation.

Burnam also said other paperwork that can be released indicates water has already seeped into a buffer zone around the radioactive waste disposal facility.

The majority owner of Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists is Harold Simmons, who has donated generously to top Republicans, including Gov. Rick Perry. Burnam said he wasn't optimistic that he would get a favorable decision from Abbott, because "the attorney general has received over a half million dollars from ... billionaire Harold Simmons in the last five years."

"He's not the only one," Burnam said at a news conference at the state Capitol, "but he's the elected official in question today."

Abbott's office said it had yet to receive Burnam's letter and had no immediate comment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has yet to give final approval on operating the dump site, but state lawmakers cleared the way for it with a new law passed during the last legislative session. Anticipating final approval, Waste Control Specialists planned to begin burying radioactive waste at the site in a matter of days.

Burnam said he may sue to block approval of the dump site while he awaits a ruling from Abbott on releasing the confidential documents.

Waste Control Specialists spokesman Chuck McDonald dismissed Burnam's comments as a ploy for attention, and said they shouldn't stop the site's beginning operation.

McDonald said Burnam called Monday's news conference, "because we're opening and he's running for re-election."

Burnam gave journalists separate Waste Control Specialists documents in which the company told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that 23,000 gallons of water had been pumped out of temporary observation wells around the waste dumping site between November and the end of March.

Burnam said Waste Control Specialists characterized the water flow as "discontinuous and controlled, and that they're merely puddles and that they'll dry up."

"Well, November to now, that's not puddles," he said of repeated pumping.

Burnam noted the area for the dump site is in severe drought, meaning that if pumping is still necessary, the water that's there is likely groundwater seeping in from elsewhere.

"This is underground water migrating," Burnam said. "Where's the water coming from? We have a right to know this simple question and have it answered."

McDonald countered that the water is moisture that built up over decades and remained trapped underground due to the area's uneven topography. He added that some residential swimming pools alone contain more than 20,000 gallons of water.

McDonald said he expected that the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality could give final approval for the company to begin burying waste by the end of the month.

Agency spokesman Terry Clawson said Monday that there is no timetable on when approval would come. But when asked about McDonald's estimate that it would be within two weeks he said, "I don't have a problem with that."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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