"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In the fall of 2004, Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists applied for a license to build a low-level nuclear waste dump in Andrews County, Texas, a dusty oil patch along the New Mexico border. In its filings and press releases, the company argued that the site was ideal because it sat atop “500 feet of impermeable red-bed clay,” meaning there was virtually no chance of radiation leaking out and tainting the water supply.
Still, there were reasons to be wary. Maps from the Texas Water Development Board showed the site sitting directly above the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive but shallow underground reservoir, which sprawls beneath eight Great Plains states and supplies roughly a third of the nation’s irrigation water. If large quantities of radiation were to seep into this water table, the effects could be devastating. After WCS’s application came up for review, however, something curious happened: The board shifted the official boundaries of the Ogallala, a move WCS claims in its official correspondence was based partly on data the company provided, though Water Board spokeswoman Samantha Pollard argues this isn’t true. “The reevaluation stemmed from work done for the development of groundwater availability models and related projects,” she says. As it turns out, five of the board’s six members had been appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who’s taken more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions from WCS’s owner, Harold Simmons.
Moving the Ogallala was not enough, however, to keep the project from running into snags. As part of the licensing review, a group of technical staffers from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spent three years sifting through data from WCS and the roughly 600 boreholes it had drilled. In the end, they found two water tables dangerously close to the site — in fact, one was 14 feet or less from the bottom of the trench where WCS intended to bury the waste. Based on these findings, in August 2007, four of the team’s engineers and geologists sent a memo to the director of TCEQ’s Radioactive Materials Division, warning that groundwater was “likely to intrude” on the proposed facility, possibly causing radiation to seep into the water supply — details that were later reiterated in a meeting with senior management. “It was clear that the problems with the site could not be fixed, and that any radioactive material stored there was probably going to leak,” recalls Glenn Lewis, a technical writer who was part of the team. “It was just a matter of time.”
Nevertheless, two months later TCEQ’s executive director Glenn Shankle recommended that the commissioners who head the agency and have final licensing authority give the project the go-ahead. He then ordered the dumbfounded technical team to begin drafting the license. After laboring over the details, in January 2009 the commission, which is made up entirely of Perry appointees, voted 5-to-1 to approve the license. The same month, WCS hired Shankle as a lobbyist. “What happened in this situation is that politics worked to get an unqualified company a license to operate a low-level nuclear waste facility,” concludes Lewis, who along with two other team members resigned in protest.
Why bring this up now? Because the WCS saga offers a window into the often murky political motivations of its owner, Harold Simmons, a man with the power to sway this year’s presidential race. An 80-year-old billionaire who grew up in an east Texas shack with no running water, Simmons amassed his fortune largely by staging aggressive corporate takeovers and running polluting businesses, many of them in heavily regulated industries. And he has spent his money liberally on conservative causes. This election season alone, Simmons has donated more than $18 million to conservative super PACs, making him the deepest of the deep-pocket super PAC donors who are upending electoral politics.
Unlike fellow mega-donors Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson, Simmons isn’t partial to any single candidate or political cause. He’s given generously to the super PACs backing all the top Republican presidential contenders. And he’s the No. 1 donor to Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, which is supporting Republicans across the board. Simmons says it’s his loathing for Barack Obama that’s driving him to spread his money around. “Any of these Republicans would make a better president than that socialist, Obama,” he told the Wall Street Journal recently. “Obama is the most dangerous American alive.”
But there may be another motive at work. Simmons has a history of giving far and wide to grease the wheels for his business ventures — particularly his nuclear waste repository. And a raft of changes in the pipeline at federal agencies could determine whether the site is eligible for billions of dollars in new contracts.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, is considering allowing depleted uranium (more than a half-million tons of which are languishing at sites around the country) to be discarded in shallow land burial sites, like WCS, even though the National Research Council and some independent scientists suggest it’s better suited to more secure repositories. Similarly, the Department of Energy is weighing options for disposing of what is known as “greater-than-class-C” waste, the most radioactive low-level nuclear debris. In the past, it was generally considered too dangerous to dump in shallow land sites, but that route is now on the table.
These deliberations, which began under the Bush administration, aren’t meant to be political. But progress under Obama has been halting, particularly on the NRC front. In fact, in January the NRC voted to abandon the depleted uranium rulemaking track it had been on since 2008 — a track favorable to WCS — and go back to the drawing board.
Then there are the lucrative nuclear-waste disposal contracts the DOE parcels out to private companies. Typically, they’re negotiated piecemeal and cover about a million cubic feet per year, but right now there’s a much larger prize for the taking: a five-year contract for up to 27 million cubic feet of debris scattered among our national labs. WCS lobbyists are pounding the halls of Congress and the DOE in a bid to sway the outcome. Simmons may be betting that having Republicans in office — particularly ones whose victory he bankrolled — could tilt the odds in his favor, as it has in the past.
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Waste Control Specialists started out as a run-of-the-mill hazardous waste dump. The company’s original owner, Ken Bigham, had designs of breaking into the nuclear waste market to cash in on the dismantling of the nation’s Cold War stockpile, but he lacked the money and political clout to push the project through. Then in 1995, a lobbyist Bigham worked with in Austin suggested he join forces with Simmons and tap his deep political connections. The pair eventually struck a deal, under which Simmons paid Bigham $25 million for a controlling stake in the company. In 1996, WCS applied with the Texas Department of Health for a license to build a processing and storage facility for radioactive waste that was awaiting permanent disposal and approached TCEQ for permission to dispose of waste from federal programs. Initially, the answer from both agencies was a resounding no. In fact, the Health Department called WCS’s proposal “severely deficient.” That December, Roy Coffee, a top aide to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has benefited from more than $4.2 million in Simmons family donations, met with the TCEQ’S director. One week later, the agency changed course, saying it was open to WCS’s Texas facility accepting federal waste, pending approval by the TCEQ commissioners. The license for the processing plant was granted the following year.
But this was just a steppingstone toward WCS’s real goal of remaking itself as a permanent nuclear waste repository, with a view toward landing lucrative government contracts. According to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in Lone Star politics, in 1999 WCS published a study of “emerging market opportunities.” It found the company could earn nearly $40 billion by handling waste for three federally funded programs. The problem with this plan was that, under Texas law, private companies were barred from operating nuclear waste dumps. WCS tried to get around this hitch by lobbying Congress and the DOE to override the ban and contract directly with the company. According to a 1998 investigation by the Dallas Morning News, Simmons and his associates even managed to persuade their allies in Congress — all of whom had taken large sums from Simmons — to block the promotions of a key DOE staffer who opposed the plan. When the DOE refused to give in to these tactics, WCS sued the agency.
At the same time, the company assembled a powerhouse lobbying team in Austin and began pushing to rewrite Texas law. Between 1995 and 2003, WCS spent more than $2 million lobbying the Texas Legislature — part of a shock-and-awe campaign that rattled the Lone Star State. “They rolled over us like a steamroller,” says Tom Smith, who directs the Texas office of Public Citizen, an advocacy group that fought the legislative changes. “I’ve been lobbying for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.” Simmons and his employees also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Texas politicians. In 2003, the Texas Legislature voted overwhelmingly to allow privately owned nuclear waste dumps.
Simmons, meanwhile, began wading into presidential politics. In the run-up to the 2004 election, he gave nearly $84,000 to Republican candidates, committees and PACS. He also sank $4 million into the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign, which torpedoed John Kerry’s presidential prospects. Perhaps Simmons was put off by Kerry’s tough talk; the otherwise mild-mannered candidate turned into a fire-breathing crusader when the subject turned to nuclear waste. He promised to block the Yucca Mountain repository, which he called a symbol of “recklessness,” on the grounds that it sat above a freshwater aquifer and proposed warehousing radioactive debris where it was generated rather than trucking it to far-flung sites for disposal.
Once Bush had beaten Kerry at the polls, Simmons chipped in $100,000 toward his inaugural ball. The Bush DOE, meanwhile, granted WCS a $15 million contract to store residue from a plant in Fernald, Ohio, that had processed uranium for nuclear weapons. The DOE maintains the decision was not politically motivated. “The subcontract for storage and disposal of the Fernald silo residues was awarded competitively by the Energy Department’s site contractor when it became clear that the initial plan to dispose of the waste at another DOE facility was not feasible,” the agency said in a statement. Nevertheless, it was a curious choice, given that the plant had been owned by another of Simmons’ companies, NL Industries, before being taken over by the federal government for Superfund cleanup in 1992 — a process that has cost taxpayers $4.4 billion.
It was also during this era that WCS applied for the license to operate its nuclear waste dump, which was later approved over the objections of Lewis and other technical staff. In its P.R. materials, WCS has cast the detractors as a “small group” of rabble-rousers who opposed the project and “launched a public misinformation campaign in an effort to slow the company’s progress.” As for the safety concerns TCEQ staffers raised, WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald insists they have no merit. “We’ve sunk nine years and $500 million into this project. We had 600 core samples taken at every conceivable depth,” he says. “There is no threat to any water supply.” McDonald adds that the only water found anywhere near the site was brackish and sealed off from major aquifers: “They could age date the water and it was 16,000 years old. That moisture had been sitting there since the last ice age.”
The license WCS finally received in 2009 covered two facilities: one for commercial waste from Texas and Vermont (the two states have a joint-disposal agreement), and one for waste from federal agencies. It also allowed WCS to accept the more dangerous B and C classes of low-level radioactive debris — something no other facility in the country can do.
For Simmons, the license was a godsend. Within months of it coming through, Forbes ran its annual ranking of the richest people in America. The blurb on Simmons, who clocked in a few slots above Ross Perot and George Lucas, noted that he had lost $1.4 billion in the previous year, but that he was “planning to make it back with [his company’s] recently approved low-level radioactive waste disposal license.” As part of its deal with the state of Texas, WCS got to operate the dump for 35 years or more, assuming it met periodic licensing obligations, and keep the bulk of the profits. (Andrews County also got 5 percent.) The state and federal government would then take over and manage the site in perpetuity. While WCS has to put up roughly $140 million in “financial assurance” to cover closure, “corrective actions” and post-closure maintenance, it has managed to persuade the state to accept mostly stock from another Simmons-owned company in lieu of cash for the first five years. And critics argue $140 million is not nearly enough to cover ongoing costs. “WCS is going to walk away and the state will be left holding the bag for thousands of years,” says Lon Burnam, a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives and a stalwart opponent of the dump. WCS also prevailed upon the generous folks of Andrews County to put up $75 million in bonds to help finance construction. (Two Andrews residents later sued, saying the bond referendum, which passed by a meager three-vote margin, was riddled with irregularities. But the lower courts sided with WCS, and the Texas Supreme Court, whose justices have received more than $90,000 in Simmons donations, declined to hear their appeal.)
Still, WCS was not satisfied. Under the terms of WCS’s license, the commercial waste facility was capped at just over 2 million cubic feet, only enough to meet about a third of Texas and Vermont’s needs. Nevertheless, the company began lobbying the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission to let it truck in commercial waste from the 36 other states that have no place to dump their radioactive debris. In late 2010, the commission proposed amending its bylaws to make this possible, but not everybody was on board. Two of the commission’s eight members openly opposed the plan, and two Republican appointees who supported it were about to be replaced by the incoming Democratic governor of Vermont. (As part of the joint-disposal agreement, Vermont gets two commission seats.) According to Reuters, after it became clear that the commission might deadlock, Gov. Perry’s office offered one of the detractors, Austin resident Bob Gregory, a coveted appointment as a university regent. Naturally, this would mean relinquishing his commission post. Gregory declined. So in January 2011, shortly before the Vermont Republicans’ terms expired, the commission — the bulk of whose members were Perry appointees — called a vote. Gregory pleaded with his fellow commissioners, saying it was “beyond preposterous” to ram the proposal through without even reading the 5,000 public comments. Nevertheless, the measure passed by a 5-to-2 margin.
Simmons, meanwhile, began currying favor with state-level politicians around the country. According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Texans for Public Justice, he has poured more than $400,000 into state-level races outside Texas since 2005, almost all of them in states that have commercial nuclear power plants and no waste repository. “When you look at how he’s moving his money around to other states, there’s a very clear pattern,” says Texans for Public Justice research director Andrew Wheat. “He’s targeting politicians who can serve his financial interests.” The same is true in Washington, where Simmons has been dumping tens of thousands of dollars into congressional campaigns. He’s also promised to sink another $18 million into conservative super PACs between now and Election Day, meaning his giving this campaign season will outstrip the rest of his career combined.
Simmons is coy about the motives behind this outpouring. As he told the Wall Street Journal, “You never talk about what you want when giving money.” But he’s been in the game long enough to know that, in politics as in business, timing matters. And for WCS this is a deciding moment. Last November, the Andrews plant celebrated its grand opening with an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony, featuring cameos by several politicians. In his remarks, delivered from the edge of a gaping pit, WCS president Rod Baltzer trumpeted the fact that it was the first new radioactive waste dump in the United States since the 1980s. “This has never been done before, and in my opinion I don’t think it will be ever done again,” he said. “There’s just a unique set of characteristics that this facility, and the community — and the ownership — has provided.” Later this month, trucks packed with radioactive debris will begin rumbling into the facility, and the true test of Simmons’ grand scheme will begin.
Mariah Blake is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, the Nation, the New Republic, Foreign Policy, the Washington Monthly and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.More Mariah Blake.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)