The Texas Solution

The federal government is facing a glut of radioactive waste -- and a contract to bury some of it could be worth millions to one of George W. Bush's top fundraisers.

There are no statues in the courthouse square of Andrews, Texas, only a squat metal monument commemorating the one-billionth barrel of oil pumped out of the sand. The "straightest road in Texas" leads out of town, past an abandoned gas station and a dessicated forest of scrub oaks. If you go far enough into the alkali desert, you'll reach a huge hole in the sand. This is where, if one of President Bush's premier Texas fundraisers has his way, the federal government could soon bury a substantial share of the radioactive waste accumulated in 50 years of nuclear weapons production.

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The site's owner is Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, whose corporate empire embraces everything from sugar refineries to the controversial chemical manufacturing firm NL Industries. One of his less successful ventures is Waste Control Specialists, a hazardous-waste disposal company that has been dogged by fires, radioactive spills, and persistent financial losses.

Simmons bought Waste Control in 1995 and soon launched a plan to revive the fortunes of the 16,000-acre desert site. He began reaching for the waste industry's biggest plum—a contract with the federal Department of Energy (DOE) to dispose of low-level nuclear waste, primarily radioactive soil, equipment, and building debris from military facilities.

There were a few impediments: Critics warned that the Andrews site, which sits atop the nation's largest aquifer and abuts an earthquake fault, was ill suited for radioactive material. And Texas regulators opposed Simmons' plan, fearing a loss of control over what was buried in their backyard. But over the years, Simmons—with support from his onetime Dallas neighbor, then-Governor Bush—has managed to neutralize most of the objections. Now, with his allies controlling the nation's energy policy, he may finally be poised to win a federal contract that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Simmons, and a series of pacs he controls, contributed about $160,000 to Bush's Texas gubernatorial campaigns in the 1990s, and more than $550,000 to Republican soft-money accounts and Bush's presidential campaign in the last election cycle. Simmons also has been a significant donor to the Senate campaigns of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and Bush's Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, once worked for him as a lobbyist. "Harold feels very comfortable with the people now in Washington," says Paul Bass, a Dallas businessman and close friend of Simmons. (Simmons declined to be interviewed for this article.)

People close to Simmons are tight-lipped about his relationship with Bush. "They are friendly, but not friends" is all one former employee will say. "Simmons has no influence on Bush." Still, during Bush's governorship, his state agencies made several decisions that vastly improved Simmons' business prospects.

In 1996, after the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission announced that it opposed any private disposal of out-of-state nuclear waste in Texas, Bush's chief lobbyist in Washington, Roy Coffee, met with the commission's director. The following week, the agency reversed its stance. And in 1997, Simmons hired several former Bush aides as lobbyists; not long afterward, the Texas Bureau of Radiation Control—which had previously found Waste Control's nuclear storage application "severely deficient"—granted the firm a license to bury waste from power companies and some federal agencies.

As governor, Bush supported state efforts to build a nuclear waste site at Sierra Blanca in western Texas, but vowed to keep the state from becoming a nuclear "dumping ground." Now he must supervise the DOE's efforts to rid itself of 357 million cubic feet of low-level waste; the administration also wants utilities to build more nuclear plants, even though it lacks disposal sites for the waste from existing plants.

Simmons began asking the federal government for a waste-disposal contract in 1996, but the Clinton administration refused to do business with Waste Control and successfully fought off a lawsuit from the company. "Our main concern was, Was Waste Control a fly-by-night company?" says a senior DOE official. "They didn't have a track record."

The department's stance soon attracted the attention of Simmons' allies. Numerous members of Congress urged then-Energy Secretary Federico Peña to accept the Waste Control proposal. Senators Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), all of whom had received major contributions from Simmons, held up the appointment of a DOE general counsel who had opposed the application.

"Waste Control played hardball," says L.G. Holstein, chief of staff under Peña. "It's highly unusual for a company to inject itself into the confirmation process of a nominee like that. They put a lot of pressure on us."

Now, with Bush in power, strong-arm tactics may no longer be required. A recent DOE report recommended hiring private contractors to dispose of some 35 million cubic feet of the department's low-level waste, and officials say they are reviewing potential partners. Back in Texas, the state Senate recently passed a bill that would grant Waste Control a 20-year license to bury low-level DOE waste at Andrews. Leading the charge for Simmons' plan were Republican state Senators J.E. "Buster" Brown and Teel Bivins, both close Bush allies and recipients of substantial campaign contributions from Simmons.

"The arrogance of the Simmons people is amazing, even by the standards of Texas, where big business gets what it wants," says Erin Rogers, outreach coordinator of the Texas Sierra Club. "The entire Texas political establishment is helping this one company."

Friends describe the 71-year-old Simmons as polite, if reclusive. They speak in awe of a country boy who grew up in a shack without plumbing and electricity, began working as a soda jerk, and became a billionaire. "He's a clairvoyant investor," says Bass. Simmons' business acumen has manifested itself in a career as a corporate takeover artist with holdings in the metals, chemicals, oil, sugar, and real estate businesses—all industries that depend heavily on the goodwill of politicians and the laws they create. "That's why I participate in the political process," Simmons told the Dallas Morning News in 1997.

In 1993, Simmons' unorthodox giving practices earned him the nation's highest Federal Elections Commission fine for violating contribution limits. Four years later, he settled a lawsuit brought by his daughters, admitting that he had siphoned $110,000 from their trust funds for political donations. His family, he remarked at the time, "apparently doesn't understand the value of political activity."

Simmons' businesses have also been the focus of high-profile court challenges. NL Industries, once one of the nation's top manufacturers of lead paint additives, is the subject of 75 lawsuits charging that its products and factories had poisoned residents and workers in at least eight cities. And last year, five former employees of the DOE's Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky, filed a series of class-action suits against NL, claiming that the company had knowingly shipped 22.5 tons of plutonium-saturated ash without telling workers that the waste exceeded federal safety standards by as much as 700 times.

In Andrews—a mostly Hispanic community impoverished by years of drought and falling oil prices—politicians have characterized Simmons' plan as an economic development project. The Waste Control site, notes company spokesman Tony Profitt, "has been endorsed by county officials at every level." But some residents question whether a businessman with Simmons' record should be trusted with radioactive waste. Just last year, Waste Control suffered two hazardous chemical fires; the year before, a pile of cesium spilled out of a container on a truck.

Outside town, Bill Addington, a farmer who heads the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, surveys the pits Waste Control has dug in anticipation of a federal contract. Under the current plan, the firm's nuclear waste disposal license would expire in 20 years, with the state and federal governments responsible for the waste for centuries thereafter. "What a gift for President Bush to leave his home state," Addington says.