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May 2, 2001     (512) 463-0300
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Senate Considering
Nuclear Waste Facility

AUSTIN - A bill that would establish a disposal facility for nuclear waste from Texas and other states was debated at length by the Senate today.

The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1541 would allow Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to oversee the facility, which would be managed by a private company, said Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, the author of the bill.

"This ... is a bill that will enable the State of Texas to license a facility to permanently manage low level radioactive waste," Duncan said. "The original design of this bill was to fulfill Texas' obligation under the compact that we have with Maine and Vermont."

Duncan said Texas' agreement with Vermont and Maine, under which Texas agreed to dispose of nuclear waste from those two states, allows Texas to regulate and control the amount of waste within its borders.

"Currently, we have no provision for the permanent management and disposal of low-level radioactive waste in Texas," Duncan said. "There are over 1,200 sites in Texas where low-level radioactive waste is being stored."

Duncan added that CSSB 1541 would allow Texas to better manage where that waste is stored by putting it in one place.

Debate was interrupted several times by protesters in the public gallery that overlooks the Senate chamber. One protester yelled, "No more nuclear waste dumps in Texas." As Department of Public Safety troopers and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms staff escorted the man from the gallery, he shouted, "You can't silence the people."

As presiding officer of the Senate, Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff has the authority to clear the gallery when disruptive behavior threatens the ability of the Senate to operate. He declined to order the gallery cleared, because he said the public should have the opportunity to hear the debate.

CSSB 1541 was approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on April 20. An amendment supported by Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins was added in committee that would bring nuclear waste from other states to the Texas dump site.

Bivins' 31st District in the Panhandle is among the likely sites for the facility should it be approved.

The committee amendment, which Duncan opposed, was at the center of the debate on the floor. Duncan said much of the waste would be contaminated materials from disposal sites in other states.

"We might conceivably become the outdoor privy for the rest of the nation," Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan said.

El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh proposed an amendment that would have removed the committee amendment from the bill. He said opening up the dump to other waste would bring as much as 50 times more waste to Texas. His amendment was defeated by a 16-13 vote.

Truan said the committee amendment was a mistake because it would open up Texas for the rest of the country's waste.

"We're going to come to regret this," Truan said.

Duncan did not make a move for final passage of CSSB 1541. The bill could come up for final passage in the Senate as early as Thursday.

Also in today's session, the Senate debated a measure that would give juries the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases. Under current Texas law, a life sentence means a person convicted of a capital offense becomes eligible for parole after 40 years. Life with the possibility of parole and the death penalty are currently the only sentencing options in capital cases.

The bill, CSSB 85, was authored by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. Lucio did not make a motion for final passage of CSSB 85, meaning the bill could be considered for final passage as early as Thursday.

In other Senate news, Rodney Ellis of Houston held a press conference to brief media about the status of hate crime legislation.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved CSSB 87, a hate crimes bill authored by Ellis, on February 12, but Ellis has not been able to get the votes needed to bring the bill up for consideration by the full Senate. A 2/3 vote of members present is required to bring a bill up for consideration in the Senate.

"The real concern is people -- some members -- don't want to vote for this bill because it has sexual orientation in it," Ellis said. He said he has agreed to language that will address some of those concerns without watering down the protections.

The House of Representatives last week approved its own hate crimes legislation, House Bill (HB) 587, authored by Senfronia Thompson of Houston. HB 587 was on today's agenda in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

The Senate is in recess until 8 a.m. Thursday, when bills on the Local and Uncontested Calendar will be taken up. The Senate will reconvene at 10 a.m.

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