EUNICE ‹ A Texas firm wants to build a low-level radioactive waste dump practically in the back yard of this oil patch town, and while environmentalists vow to fight the project, locals here are tickled about it.
''Anything that would bring any kind of industry into this part of the country, whether in Texas or in New Mexico, would be welcome, because we're so dependent on oil,'' said Eunice City Councilman Bill Robinson.
The landfill's opening, if it does come to pass, is still years away, with the entire permit application process to go through.
But Texas' state government took a crucial step down that path in late June when Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation authorizing the state's first privately operated dump for low-level radioactive waste.
Under the legislation, the landfill could ultimately accept up to 6 million cubic yards, including waste from medical research labs and nuclear power plants in Texas and Vermont, who are parties to a compact from which Maine earlier withdrew.
In addition, the law would permit the landfill operator to accept waste from federal nuclear facilities in other parts of the country.
A cubic yard of material, generally contaminated dirt, is typically the equivalent of about 1.3 tons.
The leading candidate to operate such a landfill in Texas is an outfit called Waste Control Specialists, whose president, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, enlisted an expensive team of lobbyists to press state lawmakers on the project.
Waste Control Specialists owns a 16,000-acre swath of land straddling the Texas-New Mexico border.
The site's nearest neighbor is tiny Eunice, which sits six miles to the west in the pumpjack-clogged oil patch of southeastern New Mexico and has a population of 2,562.
The nearest Texas neighbor is 32 miles east ‹ Andrews, seat of Andrews County.
The site is also 50 miles from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, leading some outside critics to characterize the area as a ''sacrifice zone'' given up to projects many communities consider unpalatable.
WCS already operates a hazardous waste processing and storage facility at the Texas site, an island of industry in the flat mesquite-covered desert. There it handles materials of low-level radioactivity but not for permanent disposal. Low-level radioactive waste is stored in 100-cubic-foot containers or steel drums, while hazardous waste, including chunks of contaminated concrete, research center uniforms and gloves, are stored in a landfill.
An orientation sheet provided to visitors says: ''People outside of the facility boundary are not measurably affected by radiation or radioactivity handled by the site.''
But Tom W. Jones III, general manager of WCS' Andrews County landfill, said, ''I'm convinced it's safe. My wife and I moved to Andrews. Quite frankly, I'd be comfortable living on site.''
Just across the road from WCS' landfill site is a 350-acre municipal landfill operated by the Lea County Solid Waste Authority. WCS donated the land to Lea County in the late 1990s.
Jones said the site is uniquely qualified for the project because it sits atop an 800-foot thick layer of red clay that is virtually impermeable.
Jones said the site does not sit above the vast Ogallala aquifer, which provides water to much of Texas.
The new legislation would allow a landfill roughly 10 times the size of WCS' current facility, Jones said. But unlike the existing plastic-lined landfill, the new legislation requires a concrete-lined facility or for the debris to be stored in concrete containers.
Before any site is opened, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must first issue regulations, accept and review applications and conduct public hearings. A permit for any site isn't expected to be issued until 2007 at the earliest, Jones said.
That would mark a new stage in Texas' 20-plus-year, $50 million effort to find a spot to deposit radioactive waste.
The previous chapter ended in 1998 with the state's decision to abandon plans to build a publicly run radioactive waste landfill in Sierra Blanca, 90 miles east of El Paso and 20 miles from the Rio Grande.
The project was vehemently opposed by Mexican officials and environmental activists concerned about a fault line running through the site.
Environmental activists, who have closely monitored the long-running effort, plan to continue the fight when WCS applies for a permit.
''We do not consider this a done deal,'' said Erin Rogers, outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club of Texas. ''There are many administrative and licensing hurdles that have to be overcome by Waste Control, and we will continue our opposition to it until the bitter end.''
Criticisms and concerns include the safety of transporting waste to the site through populated areas, turning the region into a catchall for hazardous and radioactive waste, and that Texas has assumed the liability for cleaning up a privately run site should if necessary.
But Rogers cited another concern. ''In the bigger picture, this bill facilitates the Bush administration's plan to build nuclear power plants and new nuclear weapons, and we are opposed to new nuclear power plants and new weapons, especially when Texas has the wind capacity to generate a third of the entire country's present-day electricity needs,'' Rogers said.
''Once such a facility opens up,'' said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in Santa Fe, ''other states will try to bring their waste there as well. One of the big concerns is the camel's nose under the tent and the next generation of nuclear power plants.''
Environmentalists also gritted their teeth when WCS representatives used domestic terrorism fears to lobby for the legislation allowing a privately run radioactive waste dump.
Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Bobby Inman, former National Security Agency director, told Texas legislators in committee hearings that terrorists could make ''dirty bombs'' from stolen radioactive waste now stored at medical and academic institutions around Texas.
''It's simply not reasonable to have waste sitting around on a site for 20 or 30 years that there's no place to get rid of it,'' Jones said.
Locals see the facility as a welcome addition to a job base dominated by the oil industry and the uncertainties of oil price fluctuations. Waste Control currently employs 70 people at its hazardous waste landfill and processing center.
The Andrews Industrial Foundation is solidly behind the project. Andrews resident Peggy Pryor said her former group of about 50 people, called Stop the Andrews Nuclear Dump, has dissolved in recent years because of what she called ''political pressure here in town.''
Now, she says of Andrews' anti-dump contingency, ''I'm about the only one.''
''I've never heard anything bad about it,'' said Eunice Mayor James Brown in a recent interview. ''We've had a number of residents work out there. I've never heard anything critical at all.''
State Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, said the potential landfill had ''not caused any headlines to my knowledge in Lea County'' and no one has contacted him ''with a voice of concern or upset about it.''
''In this area, people are probably more knowledgeable about the nuclear issues and the hazards they are involved with than in many (communities), because we've gone through the many, many years of licensing and preparation for WIPP,'' Leavell said. ''It's become almost a nonissue.''
If New Mexicans do want to formally comment on a radioactive waste landfill in neighboring Andrews County, Texas, during the licensing process, Rogers warned, they could encounter an obstacle. Last session, Texas' Republican-dominated legislature passed bills containing provisions that prohibited New Mexico residents from commenting on Texas projects going through the environmental permit process. The bills died in committee.
''It (the legislation) will be back,'' Rogers warned.