Uranium plant fuels growth for oil town

Uranium plant fuels growth for oil town

There’s a saying in these parts: Where oil flows, a city grows.”

Yet more than just oil and gas is fueling a recent growth spurt for the southeastern New Mexico town, whose 2,700 residents have begun to feel the initial impact of a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant going up nearby. Situated on 640 acres just east of town near the Texas border, the first major nuclear facility to be licensed in the United States in three decades has meant lightning-fast change for tidy, stoplight-free Eunice in the months since the facility’s groundbreaking last summer.

And while the fields of black pumpjacks ”” clustered like little forests ringing the town ”” aren’t likely to go away, there’s a clear and palpable sense that the community won’t ever be the same.

There’s more going on right now than your mind can manage,” said Tom Hastings, an oilfield services worker who was sipping coffee recently at the Bakery and More Cafe. It has been like an ant bed. Everything has exploded.”

Mayor Matt White needs no reminder of that fact. He’s leading a drive to install updated water lines, hire more police officers and, above all, build more housing. The town is growing so fast that one recently hired officer, unable to find a rental unit, had to live in the mayor’s recreational vehicle.

Over the past six months or so, Mayor White said recently, about 300 new workers have arrived. He predicts the town could add another 700 to 800 workers within the next year.

The studies tell us we’d need 220 more houses without the LES (Louisiana Energy Services) plant,” said the mayor, a retired Air Force and Southwest Airlines pilot. With LES, it’s closer to 400. The first project is for 60 units. We’ll be building apartments, too.”

Manufactured housing is one short-term option to house officers, said Police Chief Kevin Burnam, who oversees a staff of seven patrol officers and one narcotics officer.

The town also recently raised water rates to finance a 24-inch line that will replace smaller pipes that were installed half a century ago; the $12 million project is partially funded by legislative allocations. LES is paying for a five-mile extension that will provide water to its facility.

Work also is ready to begin this year on a new $6 million wastewater treatment plant, and city officials have collected just over $1 million in municipal and state funds for a downtown beautification project.

And don’t forget the swimming pool. The old municipal pool closed five years ago, a crumbling concrete mess, but Eunice recently secured $1.4 million ”” including a $60,000 contribution from LES ”” to renovate it. LES also pledged $150,000 a year for three years to help fund two new police positions ”” one is the officer who had to live in the mayor’s RV. The allocation funds salaries, patrol cars and other expenses.

The enrichment plant, slated to open in 2009, will employ 1,000 workers during construction and up to 350 when operational. A security firm plans to hire another 70 guards and other employees.

Among the challenges spurred by Eunice’s growth, the most pressing is a shortage of construction workers. The mayor said an oil boom that has boosted New Mexico’s economy in recent years has sapped up most of the available work force.

Collectively, these issues have turned one of the most apparent concerns about building a uranium enrichment plant ”” the nuclear question ”” into something of an afterthought for many Eunice residents.

While the plant secured the needed authorizations by federal and state regulators, environmental groups worry about health risks and argue there’s no safe way to dispose of waste the facility will generate.

But that talk is yesterday’s news to most Eunice residents.

Community leaders from towns around Lea County have traveled to The Netherlands to tour a similar uranium plant operated by Urenco, the European-based parent company for LES. Mayor White said his concerns were satisfied by what he saw and learned during his trip, and he said LES officials in Eunice and Urenco representatives overseas have been accessible and accountable.

I can pick up the phone and call their CEO anytime. He knows he can come see me right away, too,” White said.

White believes Eunice’s ties to oil and gas ”” the ranching village boomed when petroleum was discovered during the 1940s ”” helped residents comprehend nuclear technology, easing the change toward another energy arm.

As for potential risks from the uranium plant, residents agree that everyone in Eunice understands the dangers of the oilpatch, from the high-risk jobs to homes routinely built near natural gas wells that bleed off deadly hydrogen sulfide.

By comparison, the mayor said, uranium production is arguably safer.

We’re talking about nuclear material. If you didn’t say you were concerned, you’d be crazy,” White said. But when people ask us about radiation risks, we know there’s already a lot of worse stuff around here.”

The culture of Eunice is changing, too. It has become common for engineers and planners from faraway places like Scotland and Austria to meet for lunch at the Bakery and More, mixing their accents among the Texas drawl heard for decades around town.

Tony King, chief financial officer for the LES plant, moved in September from Maidenhead, England, 20 miles west of London, to nearby Hobbs, which with about 30,000 residents is the largest town in Lea County.

We sure would love to have some fish and chips,” King said with a smile.

But he said he was thrilled when Stilton cheese ”” traditional English fare at Christmas ”” shipped to his local supermarket in December.

When the employees learned my wife was English, the manager introduced himself and told her, ‘If there’s anything you miss, let us know.’ He said they would try to get it,” King said. They’ve been very accommodating.”Uranium plant fuels growth for oil town.

Information from: www.scsun-news.com

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