Like so many Republican officials of the tea party persuasion, Rick Perry despises the Environmental Protection Agency — a feeling he has expressed repeatedly in speeches, lawsuits, legislation and even a book titled “Fed Up!” Perhaps that is only natural for the governor of Texas, a “dirty energy” state where the protection of air, water and human health rank well below the defense of oil company profits for most politicians.
But Perry has at least one other reason for smacking down those bureaucrats so eagerly. When environmental regulators do their job properly, that can mean serious trouble for Perry's largest political donors.
The outstanding example is Harold Simmons, a Dallas mega-billionaire industrialist who has donated well over a million dollars to Perry's campaign committees recently. With Perry's eager assistance — and despite warnings from Texas environmental officials — Simmons has gotten approval to build an enormous radioactive waste dump over a crucial underground water supply.
“We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license, and we did that,” Simmons boasted in 2006, after the Texas legislature and the governor rubber-stamped initial legislation and approvals for the project. “Then we got another law passed that said (the state) can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied.”
Most Americans have never heard of Simmons, despite his fantastic wealth, because he wisely keeps his head low, generally refusing press interviews and avoiding media coverage. Last year, a local monthly in his hometown published the headline “Dallas' Evil Genius” over a scathing and fascinating investigative profile that examined not only the peculiar history of litigation between Simmons and his children (who no longer speak to him), but his political machinations, corporate raiding and continuing corporate penchant for pollution.
In D magazine, reporter Laray Polk explained how Simmons and a company he owns — innocuously named Waste Control Systems — manipulated state and federal law to allow him to build a nuclear-waste disposal site in West Texas. But construction has been delayed for years in part because the site appears to overlay the Oglalla Aquifer, an underground water supply that serves 1.9 million people in nine states, raising obvious concerns over radioactive contamination. In the Simmons profile and subsequent posts on the Investigative Fund website last year, Polk explored the controversy over the proposed WCS facility, including strong objections by staff analysts at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who found evidence that atomic waste might indeed leach into a huge pool of drinking water.
Now reporters for the Los Angeles Times have revived, advanced and updated the WCS story with much additional detail, including interviews with the Texas environmental officials who oversaw the approval process for the facility. For a period last summer, that process appeared to have been slowed down to allow serious consideration of the scientific data collected by the commission's staff.
In other words, the regulators were trying to do their job, which meant expensive delays and perhaps an eventual ruling against the nuclear waste site. That would have protected the Oglalla Aquifer and cost Simmons hundreds of millions in lost investment and profit. But then Perry's appointees on the commission voted by two to one to issue licenses for the WCS site.
This year, officials on another Texas commission appointed by Perry — who oversee low-level radioactive waste in the state — voted to allow the WCS site to accept nuclear waste from 34 other states in a highly controversial decision later ratified by the state legislature and signed by Perry himself. Not long after that, according to the Los Angeles Times report, Simmons gave $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry, an “independent” committee supporting his presidential candidacy. (Back in 2004, Simmons was a major contributor to another “independent” political committee, the notorious Swift Boat Veterans group that distorted Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's war record in a series of TV ads.)
According to a spokesman for WCS, the Texas governor's happy and lucrative relationship with Simmons did nothing to help the company except to turn the billionaire into “an easy target. … It made the state redouble its efforts to be thorough.” But the Texas officials who opposed the approval on principle have since quit their jobs with the state. As one of them told the Times reporters, “This is a stunningly horrible public policy to grant a license to this company for that site … . Something had to happen to overcome the quite blatant shortcoming of that application. … The only thing I know in Texas that has the potential to do that is money in politics.”
As for the Texas official (and Perry appointee) who overruled his own scientists and approved the deal, he left state government, too — to work as a lobbyist for Simmons. He says that no undue influence led to the favorable outcome for his new employer.
Texas must be the only place on earth where anyone would believe that.