Getting dumped

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

If Texas' natural resource commissioners approve the license, the next stop is the Texas legislature, where Jacobi's agency has been under fire for spending money too freely. Rep. Rob Junell of San Angelo, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says lawmakers were peeved that the agency was spending money on construction--such as digging the experimental trench--before the dump is approved. Jacobi will ask the Legislature next session for a $48 million advance to start construction. But Bush has called for the Legislature to pass a resolution limiting waste to the three compact states in 1999--a move that would probably cause Maine to pull out of the compact, if it held up legally. If Maine pulls out, the entire deal is in jeopardy, according to Junell.

The recent administrative ruling has galvanized opponents. Two weeks ago, 86 environmental groups and several Mexican officials signed a letter asking Bush to keep his word that if the site places residents in jeopardy, the project will be scrapped. Ortega and Reyes, meanwhile, have not softened their skepticism.

"It's not going to last as long as the pyramids, I know that," says Ortega, the rancher, standing in the eroding trench.

The trench, Jacobi explains, was dug more than a year ago, and the soil has not been reworked. That's why it is so parched, crumbly, and dusty. The clay that will enclose the buried waste will be highly compressed, wet, and "pretty much impermeable," he says--though it will be 100 times more permeable than the lining of an industrial landfill.

As fragile as the trench appears, so remain the politics. And just as politics, not science, guided the siting of the Sierra Blanca dump, politics could prove its undoing. Bush could end this thing with a single declaration, and that may be the biggest hope for opponents.

"Mr. Bush has a family, and he no doubt loves his children," says Ortega, father of a 3-year-old daughter. "Well, we also love our children. I say to Governor Bush: 'We are not just jackrabbits and snakes out here. We are human beings.'

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