Struggling areas accept projects others reject

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ANDREWS, Texas --- Like many rural counties across the nation, Andrews County has experienced hard economic times over the years and even lost some population.

"In 1989, during the oil bust, we had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation," said Russell Shannon, the president and CEO of the National Bank of Andrews, which is in the county's namesake city and county seat. "Things are better now because we put together a community strategic plan."

The plan called for the diversification of the local economy, which was heavily dependent on oil and gas production, Mr. Shannon said. Two years later, civic and business leaders became receptive to a proposal to allow a hazardous and nuclear waste disposal site to be built in the unpopulated western portion of the county of nearly 13,000 residents.

Barring an unexpected snag after 17 years of planning, next year Waste Control Specialists, a Dallas-based company, will start burying low-level radioactive waste in Andrews County near the Texas-New Mexico boundary. The low-level waste will come from hospitals, labs and other places that use nuclear materials and have gloves, aprons and similar items with incidental contamination.

"We're ready for it," Mayor Bob Zap said after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authorized Waste Control Specialists to dispose of the waste. "We're all satisfied that this is not dangerous, and besides, it will create jobs and bring revenue to our community."

If Mr. Zap's comments sound familiar to residents of other struggling rural counties, they are.

Whether it is a nuclear waste disposal site, a prison for violent criminals or other projects that most communities would outright reject, some financially struggling rural counties welcome them.

Snelling, S.C., about 70 miles south of Columbia, has welcomed with open arms a similar nuclear waste burial site.

"It's a service that we can provide as a state to the other states to ensure that waste is handled safely," said Keith Sloan, the chairman of the Barnwell County Council. "At the same time, we can generate significant revenue for South Carolina and Barnwell County with no real impact on our environment."

However, the nuclear waste site has not been an economic boon for Snelling, a community of about 250 residents, because it generates less than $500,000 a year.

For Andrews, which has about 85 percent of the county's population, the nuclear disposal site will create 75 jobs at first and eventually more than 100. The initial impact will be about $7.5 million and about $11.5 million when the second of two disposal operations is under way, company President Rodney A. Baltzer said.

As he has done repeatedly, Mr. Baltzer has assured residents and officials that the disposal and the storage of the waste will be safe.

Former City Manager Len Wilson said the community did the right thing in welcoming the waste-disposal site.

"There is a lot of low radioactive waste all over the United States, and this is a good location to store it," he said. "We have done geological studies that indicate there is no danger of contamination because we don't have any underground water."

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