Getting dumped

Despite shoddy science, bad economics, and catastrophic health risks, a West Texas border community may become the nation's nuclear dumping ground

Before an appeal could be heard, politics once again intervened. Then-state Rep. Dan Shelley of Houston, whose district is home to HL&P, filed a bill mandating that the Fort Hancock site be used for the dump, Moody's ruling notwithstanding.

El Paso County attorney Gayle Garner, whose objective was to make sure the Moody decision stood, tried to marshal opposition to the bill--but it quickly became clear that the area's politicians were, at best, resigned. Garner went to then-Sen. Bill Sims of San Angelo, whose district included Hudspeth County.

"He said words to the effect, 'Garner, listen to me. That dump is going to go in West Texas, it's going to go somewhere in my district, and it's going to be a financial help to our poor district. And unless they put it somewhere near my ranch in San Angelo, I'm not going to fight it,'" Garner recalls. "At that point, I understood my limitations."

He told the Hudspeth County Commissioners the dump probably wouldn't get pushed much farther away than a neighboring county, which would then get the so-called "impact money"--millions in payoff money designated for the site's host. In light of that, the commissioners capitulated. "The consensus of the commissioners court was that they'd rather have it in Hudspeth County because of the money involved," Garner says, adding that he then came up with the idea of having the commissioners draw a box where they wanted the dump. Working with the authority, Garner recalls, the commissioners drew a 400-square-mile box that was far enough away to please El Paso, and in May 1991, the Legislature passed the so-called Box Law.

While Jacobi has made much of the fact that local politicians such as then-County Judge Bill Love supported the dump, it seems commissioners simply took the best choice they were offered. However, Love's involvement in particular is complicated by the fact that as the owner of the county's only title transfer company, he personally profited from the sale of Faskin Ranch. Today, he clearly feels he's been vilified by the press and dump opponents. He says he does not remember participating in the box negotiations--"it's been out of my mind for years"--and has reportedly told at least one acquaintance that he plans to leave Hudspeth County for good.

Ruben Reyes' family bakery in Guadalupe is a sweltering cell where cardboard squares, cut from packing boxes, hang overhead as substitutes for missing ceiling tiles, and stray dinner rolls dot the concrete floor. Rafael Ortega calls himself a rancher, although his ranch in the pueblito of Praxedis looks more like a big back yard. Reyes and Ortega are community leaders in the rural, poor Juarez Valley, trying to make sure that their extended back yard does not feature a nuclear-waste dump.

The people of the Juarez Valley must fight pollution regularly. Raw sewage from Ciudad Juarez and toxic chemical wastes from maquiladoras collect in irrigation canals, causing field workers to develop skin rashes. Irrigated crops suffer from stunted growth. Reyes and Ortega say that the farms and families of the Juarez Valley have been neglected and ignored, and that they are left to bear the burden--but not the fruits--of urban industrialization. They see the dump at Sierra Blanca as more of the same.

"The radioactivity from the dump would far exceed any level of contamination we have ever had to deal with," Reyes says.

On Easter weekend, as families gathered outside for picnics, Reyes and Ortega passed out several hundred fliers opposing the dump.

"I can imagine, in time, that this area will be deadened--wasted by radioactive contamination," Ortega says. "If we let our descendants come up with the effects of radioactive poisoning, they would be right to think, 'Why didn't my parents, my ancestors do something about this?'"

Across the Rio Grande, five miles from the designated dump site, about 700 people live in the county seat of Sierra Blanca, which is not even officially a town. Instead, the state considers it a colonia--an unincorporated, poor border community. According to 1996 per capita estimates of the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, Hudspeth County ranked 248th out of Texas' 254 counties in annual personal income at $9,688. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 28.4 percent of Hudspeth County residents lived below the poverty line in 1993. There is not a practicing lawyer in the entire county.

Sierra Blanca, as well as the larger border region, has been the target of others who need a place to put their refuse. Since 1992, an out-of-state company has spread tons of treated sewage from New York City across 100,000 acres north of town.

Yet recently, new capital has poured into the town. Construction of a $186,000 fire station is three-quarters finished on the main drag. In the last four years, more than $500,000 has been spent on a new medical clinic, a new library, two new fire trucks, and new lights and grass for the school football field. Capital for all of Sierra Blanca's improvements has come from the state's multi-million-dollar payoff of Hudspeth County for hosting a nuclear-waste dump. In addition to a $5 million lump-sum payment, Hudspeth is already receiving 10 percent of the authority's Planning and Implementation budget--$800,000 to $1 million per year through the 30-year life of the dump. The money effectively doubles the county's annual budget.

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