Tea Party Senate Candidate Mike Lee Tried to Dump 1,600 Tons of European Nuclear Waste on Utah

Dick Armey and his political organizing group, FreedomWorks, have been working overtime to convince Tea Party supporters they’re invested in the movement’s “common sense” approaches on states’ rights, strict constitutionalism and protecting Main Street from Wall Street. FreedomWorks’ ties to Big Energy run deep, however, and by throwing their weight behind the group’s endorsed Utah Senate candidate, Mike Lee, Tea Party adherents are inadvertently backing a candidate who tried to bury 1,600 tons of European nuclear waste in what some call their sovereign state. FreedomWorks and Lee, put simply, are capitalizing on Tea Party anger for their own interests.

FreedomWorks’ PAC, dormant since 2000, was reborn for this year’s midterm elections, funneling about $24,000 to Tea Party candidates, including little-known Senatorial hopeful Lee, who has received a total of $13,610 in contributions and independent expenditures, far more than boldfaced rabble-rousers like Sharron Angle and Pat Toomey. But direct campaign contributions are only a part of the many rewards Senate candidates could reap from a FreedomWorks endorsement; the organization expects to spend $5 million in the midterm elections for get-out-the-vote and voter-education campaigns, according to a strategy memo obtained by the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein.

It was FreedomWorks that advanced Lee’s successful charge to unseat incumbent Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator — by helping to pack the Utah state GOP convention with Tea Party activists. (In Utah, convention delegates get first shot at determining the Republican candidate; the primary race is run between candidates getting less than 60 percent of the convention vote.)

“There was a misperception that Bennett was a conservative,” FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon told me of his group’s Lee endorsement. “But he was part of the machine, not a true-blue conservative. You’re not going to beat the establishment unless everyone’s pulling the same way, and we decided to take a chance.” But, like Bennett’s, Lee’s career also unfolded within the proverbial machine.

Oil in Their Veins

Energy and oil flow through FreedomWorks’ veins. The political organizing group was born from a schism within the group Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded with funding from conservative oil man David Koch (a principal in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S., and who is now the big wallet behind another Tea Party-aligned astroturf group, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation). What’s more, FreedomWorks’ chairman and spiritual leader, former House Speaker Armey spent three years of his post-Congress career lobbying for Irving Oil, owner of Canada’s largest oil refinery.

Armey sees no moral hazard in his work on behalf of Big Energy: he once told Congress that human beings, quite simply, lack the power to destroy the planet. “I take it as an article of faith,” Armey asserted, “if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy God’s creation.”

FreedomWorks’ connections with the energy industry don’t end with Armey, of course: board chair C. Boyden Gray, a card-carrying member of the Federalist Society, was the Bush administration’s Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy Diplomacy, and now keeps busy with his eponymous law firm, Gray & Schmitz LLP, which made $20,000 last year lobbying for Constellation Energy, a company that operates nuclear facilities here in the States. And that brings us back to Lee, whose work with nuclear waste management company EnergySolutions squares quite nicely with FreedomWorks’ money-generating mission.

Lee looks like an ideal Tea Party candidate: he loathes “Obamacare,” supports term limits and regularly gripes about porous borders that threaten national security. Perhaps most notably, Lee opposes funding for the Troubled Asset Recovery Program known as TARP, which incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett supported, a move that garnered him plenty of right-wing vitriol which FreedomWorks’ operatives happily fueled during the state’s Republican convention.

The son of Rex E. Lee, who worked as Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, candidate Mike Lee followed in his father’s footsteps by studying constitutional law at Brigham Young University, where his father also served as university president. After graduating, Lee went to work first as a law clerk for Utah Judge Dee Benson, and later for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was at that time sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, in New Jersey. From Alito and the Garden State, Lee returned to Utah and became Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman’s general counsel.

In the summer of 2007, Lee took his expertise to Howrey LLP, an international law firm that made a total of $5 million lobbying for the tobacco industry in 2003 and 2004. During his time at the firm, Lee has worked on behalf of EnergySolutions, which sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Utah for the right to import and store nuclear waste from Italy.

Utah officials — and 76 percent of the public — objected to EnergySolutions’ plan to dump 1,600 tons of Italian waste in their backyard. The state of Utah argued that the materials exceeded its pre-determined radioactive limit, which only allows low-level “Class A” materials. The Italian materials were of a higher grade, Class B and C. Lee and his peers claimed that EnergySolutions could bring the levels down by mixing the waste with lower, Class A materials, a process whose safety raises serious concerns for nuclear experts.

“The average concentration of radioactivity has to be certain, but can still have highly radioactive hot spots. If future generations build on that site, they’re in jeopardy,” said Mary Olson from the Nuclear Information Research Service.

You Tell Me It’s the Constitution

In addition to opposing the radioactive level of the Italian waste, Utah officials, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, who last year introduced a federal bill that would ban foreign waste, also argued that international refuse strained the state’s capacity to contain domestic materials. EnergySolutions was trying to trump the NRC’s, and therefore Utah’s, decision-making power.

But according to Lee and EnergySolutions’ attention-deflecting Tea Party-ready defense, the issue was less about safety or the state’s power and more about constitutional principles: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that states can only determine the type of materials they store, not whence they came.

The federal government, meanwhile, regulates foreign trade, meaning Washington, not Salt Lake City, had power over the Italian waste decision. Since they’ve already agreed to bring in nuclear materials, Lee argued, the state has no right “to pick and choose the sources from which it takes that waste.”

“[The litigation] focused not on whether it was a good idea to bring that material in, but what government has the authority to do it,” Lee said during a radio interview earlier this year. “It’s only the federal government that can decide whether or not material can be imported.” When asked later whether his case would “force” Utah to take unwanted materials, Lee replied, “Correct.” States’ rights go right out the window and the federal government, anathema to the Tea Party, comes out on top.

Lee and FreedomWorks’ true business interests, as opposed to Tea Party ideas, become more clear in FreedomWorks’ spokesman Brandon’s other explanation for their endorsement: “Lee, the first candidate to sign our Contract from America.” That rigid document demands that signatories support “all-of-the-above” energy reform, a vague reference to the American Energy Act introduced in June of last year by House Minority Leader John Boehner.

While the act concerns hot-button issues like cap-and-trade and offshore drilling, it also tips the scales in the nuclear industry’s favor.

For example, the act allows the secretary of Department of Energy to sign contracts with private companies such as EnergySolutions, and goes on to insist the NRC “may not deny an application for a license, permit, or other authorization… on the grounds that sufficient capacity does not exist, or will not become available” for already authorized sites.

In other words, EnergySolutions, whose PAC has donated $138,000 to Republican candidates this election season, would, under a Republican administration, be set up nicely for government contracts, even if it’s above capacity for the work being contracted. The secretary of energy holds all the cards, and the Tea Party’s idea of limited government goes straight out the window.

Lee apparently wants to avoid the EnergySolutions controversy — repeated calls and emails to his campaign went unanswered. While the company dropped its Italy waste bid in July, mere weeks after Lee won his party’s nomination, new suits have since been filed against EnergySolutions, including one by shareholders who claim executives inflated business prospects to elevate stock prices before selling off their own shares before a plunge.

In the world of Mike Lee and FreedomWorks, state-based rights, limited federal government and constitutional integrity are valid only to a point, and cease to matter when money’s at stake. If Lee comes out on top, so too do energy companies, leaving the rank-and-file to deal with the ramifications.

Brooklyn-based Andrew Belonsky has written for Death and Taxes, Salon, The Huffington Post, Change.org and The Bilerico Project.