Harold Simmons built a West Texas dump for radioactive waste that is bigger than 1,000 football fields and he can’t fill it.
To turn it into a profitable enterprise, the Texas billionaire hired lobbyists to urge the Obama administration to expand the types of nuclear waste, including depleted uranium, the dump can accept and award his company disposal contracts. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changes the rule, it could open access to a market worth billions. The deadline for a decision is in 2014.
Simmons now is spending money in a new way that could improve his business prospects: He’s invested $15.9 million this election cycle in various groups to help elect Republicans, who advocate easing regulations on the nuclear industry.
The largest chunk of Simmons’s campaign cash -- $12 million -- has gone to American Crossroads, a so-called super political action committee that takes unlimited donations and has a stated mission of defeating President Barack Obama. He has given at least $700,000 to Restore Our Future, a super-PAC backing Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination whose call for a fast-tracked permitting process for new nuclear plants could benefit Simmons’s Waste Control Specialists LLC.
“Whatever federal switch has to be thrown to get uranium into the hole, believe me, it will be thrown; that’s how Harold Simmons works,” said Glenn Lewis, a former Texas environmental employee who retired in protest to Simmons’s influence in the state permitting process for his dump.
Eighteen people have given at least $1 million to Republican super-PACs so far this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political spending. Before 2010 U.S. Supreme Court rulings and regulatory changes allowing unlimited donations, those individuals would have been confined to contributions of $2,500 to candidates and $5,000 to PACs.
Those wealthy backers have said they give because they share Republican Party policies for a less active federal government or on national security issues.
“What scares me is the continuation of the socialist-style economy we’ve been experiencing for almost four years,” Sheldon Adelson, a casino owner, told Forbes in a Feb. 21 article, explaining why he gives money to Republicans.
Federal Business Interests
The donors also have business and financial interests that could be influenced by who wins the 2012 presidential race.
Adelson, a Las Vegas billionaire whose family has underwritten Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid with $16.5 million, is facing Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations.
William Doré has given $1.5 million through his Louisiana oil and gas exploration company to the Red, White and Blue Fund, which backs former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in the Republican race. “Drill, baby, drill. Mine, baby, mine,” said Santorum, the grandson of a coal miner, March 21 in Mandeville, Louisiana.
In the elite donor pool, Simmons stands out because of the amounts he’s given, the number of entities he’s backed, and his history of donating large sums to Texas politicians who oversee his businesses.
Simmons, who declined an interview request, was quoted in a March 22 Wall Street Journal article saying he contributes to Republicans who would help “block that crap,” a reference to what he said is the overregulation of business.
No Strings Attached
Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, said “there really is no connection between Mr. Simmons’s personal political giving, which he has said he is doing because he believes very strongly in pro-business and free enterprise, and anything WCS is doing.”
A native of Golden, Texas, Simmons, 80, built his fortune - - Bloomberg estimates his net worth as at least $6.5 billion -- by investing in struggling companies and making them profitable. Through his Contran Corp. (CTRW) (CTRW) holding company, he is chairman of publicly-traded Valhi Inc. (VHI) (VHI), which made $2 billion in net sales last year, according to its annual report. Waste Control Specialists is the most unprofitable Valhi entity, registering a $38 million operating loss last year, part of at least five consecutive years of red ink, the report shows.
Valhi’s report lays bare to stockholders the extent to which the federal government impacts its waste-disposal earnings potential:
“While we attempt to monitor and anticipate regulatory, political and legal developments that affect the industry, we cannot assure you we will be able to do so,” it says. “Nor can we predict the extent to which legislation or regulations that may be enacted, or any failure of legislation or regulations to be enacted, may affect our operations in the future.”
In 1995, Simmons invested in Waste Control Specialists, founded by former Texas U.S. Representative Kent Hance, a Democrat who in 1985 became a Republican. The company got its start accepting hazardous wastes, and in 2003 sought state permission to dispose of radioactive materials. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose three commissioners were appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, issued the permits in 2009.
During the commission’s deliberations, at least three of its employees resigned over what they said was a biased licensing process. Among their chief complaints was the use of an assessment by company-hired university scientists of the location of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for drinking and agriculture for much of the plains, to overcome objections from environmentalists.
Simmons has made an estimated $6.8 million in campaign contributions to Texas politicians, Republicans and Democrats, since 2000, according to Texans for Public Justice, an Austin- based nonprofit that tracks state political donations. That includes more than $1 million for Perry’s three gubernatorial campaigns.
Texas environmental and political-spending watchdogs who have followed the trajectory of Waste Control Specialists said Simmons is trying to replicate on a federal level the success he’s found investing in Texas politics over the past decade.