State health officials recently notified a Denton company that it is violating state rules with the continued storage of radioactive material.
After sending the violation notice to U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals, the Texas Department of State Health Services followed with an unusual step: a court hearing Dec. 11 in Austin.
Agency officials asked a state administrative law judge to hear its case “in the interests of justice and in providing respondent with due process,” wrote Stacy McLarty, assistant general counsel for the agency.
USR owns two manufacturing plants in Denton that have been closed since 2009. One plant is on Shady Oaks Drive. The other is on Jim Christal Road. Before the plants closed, scientists manufactured radioisotopes, including those that can help diagnose disease and treat cancer.
State inspectors visit the plants periodically to make sure that readings of radioactivity at the site remain both low and unchanged. The next full inspection is due next year, said Chris Van Duesen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
USR has not been able to raise enough money over the past eight years to meet two big goals: to reopen the plant and to fund the plant's future cleanup, a state requirement so that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the costly disposal of radioactive waste.
State health officials recently stopped granting extensions to USR to raise money, which led to the violation notice, state records show.
Paul Crowe, CEO of U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals, declined to comment on the developments through his attorney, Adam Whitten.
If a judge agrees with state officials, another countdown begins for getting the radioactive waste cleaned up. If the company fails to do so, state officials are expected to step in, which means taxpayers could end up on the hook after all.
How we got here
The story goes back about 25 years. In 1993, the state and federal governments abandoned the Superconducting Super Collider in Ellis County after spending about $2 billion on the project. The project was supposed to make new discoveries in physics and put Texas on the technology front. But when costs began to soar, politicians pulled the plug. Government officials sold off assets, including a key piece of equipment: a linear particle accelerator built at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Denton scientists already were smashing atoms with cyclotrons to make isotopes at a plant on Jim Christal Road. They bought the SSC’s linear particle accelerator for $5 million and re-engineered it. The plan for their company, International Isotopes Inc., was to produce a variety of medical radioisotopes in a new, subterranean plant on Shady Oaks Drive.
Medical radioisotopes can help diagnose and treat disease. Iodine-123, for example, helps doctors see a patient’s thyroid, and thallium-201, a patient’s heart. Iodine-131 can treat thyroid cancer; copper-67 shows promise as a treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In 2003, International Isotopes sold the business to a Canadian company, Trace Life Sciences. Then, in late 2008, Trace’s banker, Medical Capital, put Crowe, a Utah businessman, in charge of the Denton plants.
Soon after Crowe’s arrival, the plants closed and Medical Capital collapsed, triggering a federal investigation. Although the Denton plants were not implicated, they were swept into federal receivership along with Medical Capital.
Crowe persisted through the receivership and secured the Denton properties in December 2011.
But his company hasn’t been able to raise enough capital to reopen the plants and manufacture medical radioisotopes in Denton.
A deadline looms
If USR can’t convince the judge next month to give them more time to raise capital for the plant, the final countdown begins.
Trace Life Sciences put up bond money for cleaning up the radioactive waste when it first bought the plants from International Isotopes years ago. After the plants went into receivership, the state claimed that bond for a total of about $218,000. USR has not put up the money for a new bond —part of the reason the state issued a violation notice.
The old bond money may be enough to pay for crews to truck off and dispose of the leftover waste sitting in drums in the concrete-lined warehouse at the Shady Oaks plant, experts say.
But it's not enough to truck off and dispose of the manufacturing equipment. An estimate from 2010 put the cost at decommissioning the site, including the linear accelerator and cyclotrons, at $2.5 million, state documents showed. Depending on whether the equipment is left buried in cement in Denton or is trucked away (and how far), that old estimate could climb.
According to the Texas comptroller’s latest report to the Legislature, the state treasury has about $27.6 million in a fund dedicated to clean up low-level radioactive waste.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.
FEATURED PHOTO: The sign for U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals is on Shady Oaks Drive near Woodrow Lane. The manufacturing plant made medical radioisotopes until it closed in 2009, and U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals has not been able to raise enough capital to reopen the plant.