SIERRA BLANCA, Texas — In the vast Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas, black-tailed jack rabbits rest during hot afternoons in the meager shade of honey mesquite shrubs. Gregarious cactus wrens sputter a harsh chur-chur-chur-chur-chur. And the scent of tar bush is sweeter than pine.
Out here near the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, beef cattle graze on thousands and thousands of acres of dusty ranchland. Boots and Stetsons are the unofficial dress code. And English can be a second language.
This wide open country could hardly be more different than the forests of Maine. Yet Maine residents have an unusual connection to the people of this desert region.
Maine intends to send its low-level nuclear waste to be buried near the isolated town of Sierra Blanca. Out of sight, the waste would hardly be out of mind — at least in Texas. The proposed waste site has brought an epic environmental battle to a fractured town of 700 people who live surrounded by desert and broken mountains. The dump’s opponents and supporters alike claim a majority of townspeople are on their side. There is no way to be sure who’s right because Sierra Blanca was never given a choice in the matter and never voted on the dump. It probably never will.
Supporters insist the project will be safe and will bring jobs and money and renewal to a withering railroad and ranching community now overlooked by tourists zooming past Sierra Blanca’s exit on Interstate 10 toward hotels and golf courses to the east and west.
Opponents warn the waste will contaminate precious ground water, expose people to radioactivity, make Sierra Blanca a place no one would want to visit, and will turn their low-income community into a national dumping ground. They want Mainers to pause and consider how they themselves would feel if one of their towns was forced to accept a dump with byproducts of the atomic age.
“This region out here is every much as beautiful as Maine is,” says dump opponent Bill Addington, a third-generation Texan whose family owns a ranch and a general store in town. “We may not have the forests, but we have a lot of life here — animal, plant and human life that need to be protected. Mainers need to understand that Sierra Blanca, Texas, is nowhere less environmentally sensitive than their own state.”
Mainers will be hearing a fair amount about Sierra Blanca in the next few weeks. Two Mainers in particular will get an earful. U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are pushing a bill to authorize an interstate trade compact allowing Maine and Vermont to ship low-level radioactive waste exclusively to Texas. The compact bill already has passed the U.S. House.
Finding a disposal site in Texas for Maine’s waste hasn’t been easy. When local opposition forced it to give up sites in two other towns, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, a state agency commissioned to build and operate a site, finally settled on the 16,000-acre Faskin family ranch five miles east of Sierra Blanca’s neighborhoods, schools and crumbling commercial center.
From the authority’s wide, well-furnished, air-conditioned trailer at the site, 93 miles east of El Paso, visitors can sit and watch a video about the project, which the authority promises will pose virtually no threat to people, wildlife or the environment.
Low-level nuclear waste is generally not as dangerous as the nastiest nuclear waste — used fuel rods from nuclear power plants or the byproducts of the government’s weapons program, for example. Low-level waste comes mostly from industry and nuclear power plants — protective clothing, tools and other materials that become irradiated during maintenance, for example, or reactor core parts that remain radioactive and dangerous long after power plants are shut down.
Maine offers a case in point. The decommissioning and dismantling of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset may generate 196,615 cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste. Maine’s next largest generator is the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, which maintains and repairs nuclear submarines and which generates 1,000 to 1,500 cubic feet of waste per year, a state official said. Much smaller amounts come from research laboratories, hospitals and paper companies.
Cancer is a chief concern with radioactive waste. Used nuclear power plant parts tend to be far more radioactive than medical waste, and accordingly pose a greater risk. While the radioactivity in some waste decays, or dissipates, to safe levels in days or decades, the most radioactive of the waste must be buried, remain intact and away from people for 500 years. Radiation coming from approved disposal sites cannot exceed a dose of 25 millirems per year, or the equivalent of four or five chest X-rays.
In Sierra Blanca, the low-level waste would be placed in 9-foot-high, steel-reinforced concrete canisters, which are supposed to last 500 years, and buried in expansive trenches 40 feet deep. Trenches would be capped with 16 feet of clay and soil designed to block infiltration by rain water, plant roots or animals.
The desert here gets only about 12 inches of rain per year, far less than the amount that falls on Maine. The authority says it will monitor the site for water infiltration. In any event, the nearest aquifer is 600 to 800 feet below the site. The Rio Grande is 16 miles away. In short, after analyzing the site’s geology, ground water and soils, the authority says Sierra Blanca is one of the safest places around for this waste.
“We have studied every aspect of this site that is required by the licensing agencies,” says Adriana Rhames, the authority’s spokeswoman. “We have no evidence whatsoever of this being a bad site.”
Science or politics?
Critics say the authority and the politicians chose Sierra Blanca not for the character of its soils and geology, but rather the complexion of its people, most of whom are Mexican-American and lack the wealth or political clout of people in other communities that fought off the dump.
“They think we’re not educated, but we’re not as dumb as they think we are,” says Eutimio Salgado Sr., 63, who was born and raised in Sierra Blanca and does road maintenance for Hudspeth County. “If this waste ain’t bad, why don’t they dump it where they make it instead of bringing it over here and spending all that money.”
Addington is the most vocal and vigilant of the dump’s opponents. He’s a lanky activist who expounds on Cesium, tritium leaks, inferred geological faults and more than most Mainers might want to know about the Maine Yankee nuclear plant. He says the term “low-level” is the nuclear power industry’s convenient misnomer for this waste. Some of it will remain radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years, he says, far longer than the 500-year lifespan of the concrete canisters.
Addington says the authority has foisted the waste on a community with scant resources to fight back. It’s also not the first dump to come to Sierra Blanca. Hundreds of tons of New York City’s treated sewage sludge is shipped here by rail each week and spread on desert land. Many people in town, even some opponents of the radioactive waste dump, seem more at ease with the sludge operation and its jobs. Addington believes more waste dumps are on the way, however, which would turn Sierra Blanca into a national dumping ground.
“We’re the political path of least resistance,” he says. “We have few voters. We’re far, far away from the centers of power. And 70 percent of us happen to be Mexican. It’s a classic case of environmental racism.”
What bothers many people in town is that they never had a say in either waste site. Indeed, when local and regional opposition foiled two other potential sites in western Texas, the Texas Legislature in 1991 passed a bill designating a 400-square-mile area in southeastern Hudspeth County for the low-level waste. The Faskin ranch was deemed suitable and it was for sale. The unincorporated town of Sierra Blanca had no choice in the selection.
“If we had a vote on that thing — the whole county — I think it wouldn’t have passed,” says Camila Lawson, who works in the county tax assessor’s office. “The voice of the people wasn’t heard. That was wrong.”
Earthquakes are of great concern to dump opponents. The site is in Texas’ most seismically active region, although far less active than the Pacific Coast. Townspeople talk about deep crevices opening up in the desert after earthquakes in years past. In 1995, a quake in nearby Alpine shook the region and registered 5.6 on the Richter scale.
There also appears to be a fault line running beneath the waste site. Addington calls it a “preferential path” for radioactivity to reach ground water and the Rio Grande. He says that should disqualify the site under Texas law.
Geologists acknowledge a break in the slope of bedrock beneath the site resembles a fault. But they say it hasn’t moved in at least 750,000 years and that the disposal site is designed to withstand anything likely to shake the region.
Addington doesn’t want to wait around to see. He points to similar promises made at other radioactive waste sites around the country, some of which have leaked. At an old desert site in Beatty, Nev., high levels of radioactive compounds were found 357 feet below the surface and 10 feet above the water table, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“They can’t show me one dump that’s operated satisfactorily — not one. And they’re asking us to trust them?” Addington says. “I’m sorry. I’m not willing to trust them with our precious water.”
Other communities in the region also don’t trust them either. Eighteen counties, 11 cities and three states in Mexico have passed resolutions opposing the Sierra Blanca dump, according to Addington. El Paso is opposing the project in its licensing hearings, which just began, because the city wants to pump water, a valuable commodity here, from two ranches it bought in Hudspeth County east of the site. People in Mexican border communities worry about threats to the Rio Grande.
A final decision on the license from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission isn’t expected until this summer. If the license is approved, the dump could begin accepting waste in the summer of 1999.
Benefits or bribery?
Low-level nuclear waste comes with money. And supporters of the project say money is as rare as rain out here. Hudspeth County, with about 3,500 people in an area the size of Connecticut, is a poor community with a high unemployment rate.
The dump, still in the planning phase, has generated $3.3 million for the county, with perhaps $1 million more to come annually if the dump is approved. In Sierra Blanca, the initial funds have purchased outright or contributed to a new town library, a health clinic, an ambulance, a community park, two fire trucks and a new football field and computers for the school system.
“We’re a very poor community,” says County Judge James Peace, who administers the county’s budget and supports the dump. “We have no other source of money to be able to finance these things.”
Jim Schilling, a rancher who lives on and leases land in the county, says Sierra Blanca has little else to create economic opportunity, and that the site offers jobs, even if not all 33 of them would be filled by people in town.
“There’s no industry here; there’s nothing to keep people here,” says Schilling, who is paid by Advocates for Responsible Disposal in Texas, a coalition lobbying for the site.
Once the waste site is licensed, Maine would send $12.5 million to the state of Texas and another $1.25 million to Hudspeth County for local projects, an official says. Another $12.5 million would go to the state and another $1.25 million to the county when the dump actually begins taking waste.
The dump’s opponents call it bribery. What good is all the improvement to the town, asks resident Carlos Ramirez, when your health is at risk? “Money ain’t going to buy you life,” he says. “They’re fattening us up for the kill, in a sense.”
Texas opens the door
So why are Vermont and Maine going west with their waste? In 1980, Congress made states responsible for the safe disposal of low-level radioactive waste. Along came Texas, which had been working to develop a waste site of its own. Leaders in Texas want a disposal compact with Maine and Vermont because it would allow Texas, thanks to congressional approval, to reject waste from other states without running afoul of interstate commerce protections under the U.S. Constitution.
Maine’s political leaders support the compact, even though Maine’s largest generator of nuclear waste, Maine Yankee, has backed away from the Texas site and is considering an alternative. Maine Yankee says the Texas site is too expensive and won’t be ready to accept waste in time for the dismantling of the nuclear plant. As an alternative, Maine Yankee says it is considering a site in Barnwell, S.C., that it already uses for low-level waste disposal.
Addington says that if Maine can’t take responsibility for its own waste it has no business producing it in the first place, let alone sending it where it is not welcome. “There is no democracy regarding radioactive or toxic waste,” says Addington, who has visited Maine to organize local opposition to the dump.
The responsible alternative, he says, is to store the waste above ground in carefully monitored vaults closer to where it is generated. In that way, he says, any leaks of radioactivity won’t go undetected underground and can be stopped more easily.
The Texas waste authority and the dump’s supporters in town have their hands full with Addington, whose self-admitted obsession with the dump has turned a section of the family’s general store into opposition headquarters. The authority tries to assure people that this site is different from older sites that leaked and is designed to withstand earthquakes and the unlikely infiltration of water.
“All the characteristics you need for this type of disposal are here,” Rhames says, denying that the site was chosen because of the county’s poverty or lack of political influence. “The reason this site was chosen … is because of science.”
Lewis Rogers, the superintendent of Sierra Blanca’s school system, supports the waste site and trusts it is designed to protect the public and the environment. If Americans want to enjoy the benefits of nuclear power or medical technologies that use radioactivity to cure disease, he says, then Americans should be willing to deal with the byproducts.
And if he himself were searching for a site, Rogers would look to the geology and remote open spaces of Sierra Blanca. “It’s as stable a site as you’ll find,” he says, adding that it bothers him the waste is now being temporarily stored around the country behind chain-link fences.
One Maine official who should be sensitive to allegations of environmental racism is Stephen Ward. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Ward says, he was beaten and found himself looking down the barrel of guns while working to integrate high schools in Mississippi. Ward, now Maine’s public advocate for the interests of utility customers, has visited Sierra Blanca site and rejects the charge of environmental racism.
“It’s an understandable claim to be made by local residents, but it’s entirely a red herring,” he says. “In fact this is a superior site on all the environmental criteria. That’s why it was picked. It really should be regarded as the solution to an environmental problem rather than the cause,” he says.
Bryan Pfeiffer, a reporter for the Rutland Herald and The Times-Argus, covers the Texas compact for these newspapers in Rutland and Barre, Vt.