Getting dumped

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

Dump proponents say that a centralized repository for low-level radioactive waste is not creating pollution, but rather addressing the existing problem because it would consolidate temporary radioactive-waste storage facilities that now exist throughout the state, including the border zone. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the agreement only requires one country to notify and consult with the other about any facility that might violate the spirit of the accord. Texas has done that.

The dump at Sierra Blanca represents the first time Mexico has tried to hold the United States to the letter of La Paz, and Mexican lawmakers are threatening to fight the United States in an international court over the issue. However, it remains to be seen whether the lawmakers are grandstanding, or are really willing to test U.S.-Mexico relations over the issue.

Mexican dump opponents acknowledge that Mexico itself is a major polluter, but emphasize that the dispute should not become a swearing match. In fact, they have no illusions about either government. "Both governments protect economic interests before social interests," says Ciudad Juarez councilman Jose Luis Rodriquez, whose 24-day hunger strike protesting the dump became headline news south of the border. "Politicians in Mexico and the U.S., they both are compromised by the influence of money."

Money may be at the heart of the fight over Sierra Blanca, but Texas probably won't see a dime. Unlike South Carolina, which lards its higher education fund with a tax of $235 per cubic foot deposited at the Barnwell site, Texas' main goal has been simply to break even without spending taxpayers' money. Though the authority has spent $53.6 million since 1982--without even beginning construction on the site--most of that money has come from a fund endowed by utilities and other waste generators, and the rest of it will be repaid from that fund over time. Maine and Vermont will contribute $25 million each toward dump construction and "impact money" when the compact is approved by Congress.

The authority maintains not only that it is required by state law to build a dump, but that doing so is the only responsible way to manage the state's waste. While Texas could just continue to ship its waste elsewhere, Jacobi says, "Throwing up your hands and saying, 'We're not going to deal with this' is not a good long-term solution. That would be irresponsible in my mind."

Former Texas Health Commissioner Robert Bernstein, one of the physicians on the board of the pro-dump Advocates for Responsible Disposal in Texas, a group started by a utility consultant, warns that "all kinds of funny stuff will happen" if the state doesn't provide for medical-waste disposal. "The people that work with the stuff, like in an isotope lab, if they somehow feel like the system doesn't want to fool with it, then they'll start pouring stuff down the sink," Bernstein says. "That's what will happen if we don't develop a sure, reasonable, safe system. You would be leaving it up to individuals to decide, and the next thing you know, it's out of hand."

Hospitals and researchers store waste in temporary facilities throughout the state, then either send it to Barnwell or wait for it to become stable and dispose of it. Though these facilities have as much as 90 percent of their capacity available, dump proponents argue that such storage facilities pose a health threat to the highly populated communities where they are located--though the authority did not compare the relative safety of the current situation with the Sierra Blanca dump.

The argument is surprising, as Jacobi does not make a habit of emphasizing the danger of radioactive waste. He testified at the license hearings that the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster, which caused thyroid cancer and severe psychological distress, were negligible. "Well, some people died from the radiation exposure and also from exposure to the fire itself," Jacobi told the judges. "But the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl health effects are actually minimal."

While radiation is known to cause cancer, genetic mutation, and in high doses radiation sickness, less is known about the health effects of prolonged low-level exposure. Though the authority projections show that human exposure will be one-fifth of the maximum allowed by law, the potential health effects of the site to Hudspeth County residents are largely unknown. The increase in jobs and public capital the county will experience during the 30-year life of the dump may be offset by less tangible negative effects. And, as a recent New York Times story about the decommissioning of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant shows, small communities can become addicted to such temporary largesse. "It was like living in fairyland," said one resident of the small town that was home to Maine Yankee. Thanks to the plant's closing, the town's property taxes are expected to double or even triple.

Lynch says that in exchange for short-term gain, county politicians have been willing to overlook the possibility that something might go wrong. "The amount of money is irresistible," she says. "They don't understand the long vision."

Texas and Hudspeth County might not clearly benefit from the dump in the long run, but there is one group that will: utility companies. These giants stand to save tens of millions of dollars in disposal costs over the 30-year life of the Sierra Blanca dump. The authority projects that the state will charge a disposal fee of about $150 per cubic foot of waste, at least 50 percent less than what they pay at Barnwell. To ensure their interests are protected, utilities deploy a small army of lobbyists--Houston Industries and its subsidiary HL&P have 43 in Austin--and make generous contributions to politicians. In 1995 and 1996, out-of-Texas utility PACs contributed $688,000 to House sponsors of the Texas-Maine-Vermont Compact, which, if ratified, would open the possibility of their using the dump.

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