Getting dumped

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

But the dump could have less easily quantifiable effects on the area. The stigma of the radioactive waste could cast a shadow on tourism, business development, real estate, and farming or ranching in the entire region--which may be why all the surrounding counties have passed resolutions against the dump. Jim Glendinning, who operates a bed-and-breakfast in Alpine and has authored a travel guide about the region, says, "One needs to think about how people think. They think of this as a pristine area--untouched and underpopulated. As soon as they learn of something negative about the area, they will think it is not exactly like that, and they will try visiting places where they would not come across a nuclear-waste facility."

In the authority's socioeconomic impact study, however, no attempt was made to identify or quantify any potential negative effects. Dennis Harner, the expert who conducted the authority's study, concluded that the only possible adverse impact of the dump was community disagreement over how the windfall would be spent.

The authority conducted what the administrative law judges called a "rather superficial" assessment of the site's effect on the surrounding ecology. TNRCC's witness admitted he did not have the time or money to produce an up-to-date survey of residents. For his part, Harner traveled to two locations near existing dumps in other states and interviewed "eight to 10" people at each, in an attempt to prove that no stigma is attached to towns hosting a nuclear-waste dump. Their testimony betrays a callous attitude that enrages some residents. "It's absolutely amoral," says West Texas native Linda Lynch. "It's worse than immoral."

Not only did Harner think a perfectly functioning dump would be good for Sierra Blanca, he thought a failing facility would be beneficial as well. At one point in the hearing, Harner testified that a Superfund site, where high levels of hazardous waste have been abandoned, would have a "positive impact" on a community because "there would be jobs generated and employment while they cleaned this site up."

"Statements like that, that we've heard many, many times over the years, take your breath away," says Lynch.

Throughout the hearing, the authority defended its lack of serious study by arguing that socioeconomic impacts were not sufficient reason to deny the application. The administrative law judges agreed that such impacts could not, by themselves, constitute reason to deny the license. However, the judges found the authority's analysis "superficial" and "deficient" enough to contribute to their recommendation that the authority's permit request be denied.

The authority's analysis may have been superficial, but its attempts to win over the populace have been lavish and thorough. It has wined and dined residents, even flying 10 of them to South Carolina to tour the Barnwell dump. At the Sierra Blanca School, the authority funds an educational program that includes trips to New Mexico and Dallas to tour nuclear facilities nearby. One lucky group, most of whom had never before flown on a plane, got to eat at Planet Hollywood and Medieval Times and stay at the Embassy Suites hotel, according to a report in The Texas Observer. "At first I had my doubts," one kid wrote afterward. "But now I am more for [the Sierra Blanca dump] than against. The suites were so cool. The food was great and Medieval Times was fantastic."

Proponents with such deep pockets have forced Hudspeth County residents to fight the same battle again and again. On the national front, Congress refused to approve the Texas-Maine-Vermont agreement in 1995 because of suspected environmental injustice. But in 1998, after heavy lobbying, the bill came up again and was voted into conference committee.

Local opponents of the dump, such as Lynch, are exhausted. Lynch helped get the authority out of Dell City in the early '80s. Then, around 1990, her citizens' group, Alert Citizens for Environmental Safety/Hudspeth Directive for Conservation, turned over all its information to El Paso's lawyers to aid them in their fight against the Fort Hancock site. When Judge Moody's decision came down, Lynch says, "We were extremely relieved. We believed the county had been spared for the second time. So when we learned that they had reached an agreement to push the dump farther back into Hudspeth County, we felt incredibly betrayed."

Dump proponents seem to find it easy to turn a blind eye to those who will be affected, particularly those who live south of the border. When 12 high-ranking Mexican lawmakers, including the chair of the Mexican Senate's committee on ecology and natural resources, traveled to Austin to protest the dump site, Governor Bush refused to meet with them.

The Mexicans claim the dump violates the 1983 La Paz agreement, promoted by the United States to stop Mexico from dumping raw sewage into rivers that flowed into San Diego County, California. Both nations agreed to "prevent, reduce, and eliminate sources of pollution in their respective territory which affect the border area of the other," setting a 62-mile zone on either side of the border. Mexico considers the agreement a treaty; the United States does not--according to legal scholars, La Paz is a good-faith declaration that carries little legal weight.

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