Storing nuclear waste/The Deaf Smith site. Prospect of nuclear waste dump draws scowls from farmers in Texas panhandle
Wayne Richardson scowls darkly when the topic of nuclear waste comes up. Mr. Richardson is a farmer, but he has more than the price of wheat on his mind. His family farm is threatened by the federal government's search for a resting place for highly radioactive wastes from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants.Skip to next paragraph
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The 3,800-acre Richardson Seed Farm is in one of three locations that the US Department of Energy (DOE) has said are the most likely candidates for the nation's first underground repository for commercial nuclear wastes.
``A couple of years ago, when I first heard that they were drilling bore holes for this depository, I thought they must just have some money to waste,'' Richardson recalls.
After all, he asks, ``Who in their right mind would put that sort of a thing in a breadbasket area like this?''
This is wheat and cattle country. Deaf Smith County, where the repository might be located, is one of the state's top counties in agricultural receipts.
Last year, Richardson's operation alone provided seed for 8.3 million acres of wheat.
In March 1984 Richardson received a notice that his farm had been picked for a repository site and there was a meeting about the matter in 26 hours. This gave him and his neighbors time for little more than a hasty caucus.
When the group arrived, the officials conducting the meeting couldn't even give them the precise plots of land involved, he complains, adding, ``Our relationship has gone downhill from there.''
Recently the site was shifted two miles.
But this has meant that the wells that irrigate one-third of his land, rather than his land itself, are in immediate jeopardy.
While the strongest criticism of this site comes from the farming community, local merchants appear more equivocal. Such a project would bring new jobs.
But this gain might be more than offset by the departure of some major local food companies. Frito Lay and Holly Sugar have said a repository might force them to move. Arrowhead Mills, a major health-food company, maintains that its operation is incompatible with such a facility.
Intense opposition to siting a repository here wove the issue quickly and colorfully into the bigger-than-life fabric of Texas politics -- specifically, the United States Senate contest between Democrat Lloyd Doggett and GOP Rep. Phil Gramm, who won the election.
Mr. Gramm had voted for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which authorized the repository program (including provisions that strengthened federal control). Mr. Doggett accused him of backing the dump.
But Gramm successfully neutralized the attack; Energy Secretary Donald Hodel visited the state and characterized Gramm as an effective opponent of the Texas site.
This helped Gramm win the election. But it also put him on the record as opposing the project, making opposition bipartisan.
Shortly thereafter, the state attorney general sued the DOE, challenging the way it picked the Texas sites. The NWPA instructed the DOE to identify sites and notify the states of their identity by mid-1983.
But it wasn't until much later that the department narrowed the 300-square-mile area in the panhandle to two specific sites.
In addition, the state charges that the DOE improperly held up publishing the required site-selection guidelines for more than five months until after the Texas selection was made.
This way the DOE didn't have to justify its decision according to the guidelines, says the suit, which is still pending.
With last December's release of the repository draft Environmental Assessments (EAs), the Deaf Smith site was officially raised to preferred status, touching off a statewide furor.
Democratic Gov. Mark White declared that ``sparks would fly'' before panhandle residents ``glow in the dark.''
DOE meetings in the area were packed with hundreds of angry and concerned people. A state agriculture commission survey found that 73 percent of the people in the region opposed the idea. State legislators began passing statutes to throw up a barrier of red tape to hinder DOE activities.
Since then the initial, largely emotional response has simmered down.
The almost two-inch thick EA provided opponents with considerable ammunition.
Richardson and his neighbors pored through its hundreds of pages and found much that bothered them.
The EA states there are three wells on the site. The farmers say there are 36. The report states that 75 percent of the nine-square-mile site is farmland, of which half is dry land and half is irrigated. The farmers say that 85 percent is farmland and 90 percent of this is irrigated.