State and federal officials across Texas have signaled a unified front of opposition to an effort by a waste disposal company to bring the nation’s high-level nuclear waste to Andrews County in West Texas – but the opposition hasn’t stopped the company or the federal government from moving forward with considering the approval of the proposed nuclear waste permit right in the heart of the nation’s top oil field. 

The company responsible for seeking the high-level nuclear waste disposal permit, Waste Control Specialists (WCS), operates a low-level disposal facility in Andrews County, and currently has an application before the federal nuclear regulatory commission (NRC) that would allow the company to truck in nuclear waste from power plants and other sources from around the nation. 

Numerous officials, residents, and experts have sounded off in opposition to the high-level waste, the latest significant development seeing the Andrews County Commissioners Court unanimously pass a resolution in opposition to high-level nuclear waste – with commissioners revealing that their constituents overwhelmingly stood in opposition as well. 

In addition to strong opposition from the host county, local, state, and federal officials who represent West Texas have taken stances against the measure, including Congressman August Pfluger (R-TX11), State Representative Tom Craddick (R-Midland), Odessa Mayor Javier Joven, the Midland City Council, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. 

Recently, the Bexar County Commissioners Court and San Antonio City Council passed resolutions opposing high-level nuclear waste and cited the potential plan to ship the waste via rail through the city of San Antonio to the Andrews site.

State Representative Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa), however, whose district includes Andrews County, has a controversial history of support and opposition on the issue.

Historically, Landgraf has been a strong ally of WCS, having received thousands in campaign contributions from the political action committee and leadership of WCS.

In taking his present public stance against bringing high-level nuclear waste to his district, Landgraf filed legislation that he claimed would ban WCS from bringing it into the state.

But those leading the charge against high-level waste pointed out that Landgraf’s legislation not only wouldn’t accomplish what he claimed, but constituted a major give away to WCS.

Opponents of high-level nuclear waste pointed out the portion of Landgraf’s legislation that claimed to ban high-level nuclear waste would be moot if the company obtained a federal permit for high-level nuclear waste and likely wouldn’t survive challenges in court.

Meanwhile, the legislation also gave massive tax breaks that would cost the state millions in lost revenue to the benefit to WCS, and also dangerously reduced storage regulations that would further place West Texas at risk of a contamination.

The state currently assesses a fee against WCS for an emergency cleanup fund in case there is ever a radioactive leak at the facility. Landgraf’s bill would have reduced that fee from 20 percent, to 5 percent – allowing WCS to pocket an estimated $1.524 million annually at the expense of the emergency cleanup fund.

Tommy Taylor, who is the director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch, one of the largest landowners in Andrews County, wrote in an op-ed that Landgraf’s legislation was actually being supported by Austin based lobby firm Hillco Partners, who was hired by WCS to lobby the legislature on their behalf.

Taylor noted that public records indicate WCS paid Hillco a “small fortune” to get Landgraf’s legislation passed.

Representative Tom Craddick (R-Midland) killed the legislation on a point of order, and authored a letter pointing out multiple problems it contained, describing it as a “vendor bill” implying that WCS was behind it, and wrote that while it was being marketed as a ban on high-level nuclear waste, he disagreed, and said he had “grave concerns” regarding its effects.

This isn’t the only example of legislation with a questionable history arising during this legislative session that involves Representative Landgraf and Hillco Partners. 

An investigative report by Odessa Headlines revealed Landgraf told Ector County officials a now debunked cover story regarding the origin of a $15 million rider amendment in the state transportation budget this legislative session that sought to expand the runways at Schlemeyer Airport in Odessa. 

Landgraf claimed the amendment was sought by DPS as part of a border security operation to be based at the airport, while denying that he authored the amendment.

In actuality, the amendment was sought by Hillco Partners after being paid by the airport FBO, Texas Aero, to secure the funding without obtaining consent from the county.  

A coalition of major oil companies, landowners, and concerned citizens came together to form an organization to oppose the approval of the high-level nuclear waste permit pending before the NRC, dubbed “Protect the Basin.” 

From their website, Protect the Basin highlights the major potential problems with high-level nuclear waste storage at the Andrews facility, including risks arising from transporting the material to West Texas, elevated risks of becoming a target of terrorism, contaminating essential aquifers, and says it would be malfeasance to jeopardize the heart of the American energy industry. 

The NRC is expected to issue a decision on whether they will grant the permit to WCS for high-level nuclear waste within the next two months and Protect the Basin vows to continue to fight the transportation and storage of high level waste in the Permian Basin.

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.