Getting dumped

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

In the stark, Wild West landscape of the Trans-Pecos region, a rancher and a baker kick up dust in the bottom of a trench 32 feet deep, 210 feet wide, and 400 feet long. The rancher, shielded from the blazing sun by a cowboy hat, scoops a small pebble of dirt into his hand and rubs it between his thumb and fingers. It crumbles and drizzles to the ground, leaving a powdery residue on his rough fingertips.

"The dirt," Rafael Ortega says in broken English, "no good."
Ortega, the rancher, and Ruben Reyes, the baker and a city councilman, live in Mexico. They have crossed the border to visit the site of a proposed low-level radioactive-waste dump in Hudspeth County, Texas, 16 miles from the Rio Grande. If the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority has its way, nuclear waste will be buried in this "no good" dirt. The authority will bury waste from Texas, Maine, Vermont, and possibly other states here--in Texas' most seismically active region--where 64 earthquakes of a magnitude of 3.0 or greater have struck in the past 70 years. It will bury waste a mere five miles from the largely Hispanic, low-income county's most densely populated area, the 700-person town of Sierra Blanca. And it will bury waste in concrete canisters whose anticipated life span is 500 years--a tiny fraction of the hazardous life of some materials that will be included in the waste.

In light of these conditions, it might seem that the Sierra Blanca site is not a good choice for a radioactive-waste facility. But in the 17 years that the authority has been trying to find a location, its sights have rarely strayed from the border region, already home to sewage sludge from New York and toxic waste produced by maquiladoras--U.S.-owned factories in Mexican border towns. Of the four locations the authority has considered, three have been in Hudspeth County. When the authority attempted to look elsewhere, political pressures retrained its gaze on the hardscrabble, thinly populated Trans-Pecos.

The border area, which is about as far as you can get from the largest nuclear-waste generators in the state, may not be the best site for a dump, but it has proven to be the most expedient.

The fact that the dump's siting has been based more on politics than science hasn't raised many eyebrows in Texas. Since the search for a dump site began in the early '80s, the process has been fought by a small group of environmentalists and the relatively few people who live near potential sites. By contrast, opposition to the dump on the Mexico side has taken on a dramatically populist flair. In 1996, the mayor of Ciudad Acu-a, the border cousin of Del Rio, led 500 schoolchildren to the Texas capitol building, where they read anti-dump essays. This spring, two commercial radio stations in Ciudad Juarez organized a march against the dump that was attended by an estimated 1,200 people. A couple of weeks later, 3,000 Mexican schoolchildren blocked an international bridge between Juarez and El Paso in protest. Thirty thousand Mexicans signed a Greenpeace petition urging the Mexican government to oppose the dump; the Mexican Congress unanimously passed a resolution against the facility. A Juarez City Councilman staged a 24-day hunger strike--one editorial cartoon on the subject had Governor George Bush saying in Spanish, "Quit your strike, Jose Luis, and I'll bring you a gordita from Taco Bell."

While Mexico may be practicing "good, populist politics," as one legal scholar put it, problems with the dump go beyond the not-in-my-back-yard variety. A lengthy review of reports and documents concerning the dump revealed the following:

*While proponents say the "low level" radioactive waste that will go in the ground at Sierra Blanca is safe, it is far more dangerous than the name implies. Low-level waste can contain dangerous elements such as plutonium and cesium-127, which caused health problems in the wake of Chernobyl, and can be more radioactive than high-level waste from military reactors.

*The site-selection process was deeply flawed. The proposed site for the dump was designated before the requisite studies were begun.

*Proponents have virtually ignored the wishes of those who will live near the waste facility--the authority's own survey says 66 percent of Hudspeth County residents oppose it, and Mexico claims it violates a bilateral treaty.

*The objectivity of the group designated to manage Texas' low-level waste is questionable. The head of the authority, Rick Jacobi, is a former employee of Houston Lighting & Power. HL&P will be one of the dump's biggest customers.

The authority and its supporters maintain that the site, with its arid climate and low water table, is not only perfectly safe, but "ideal." But in early July, the State Office of Administrative Hearings unexpectedly recommended against granting a license for the dump, ruling that studies of the geological stability of the site and the facility's potential socioeconomic impact were too shoddy to ensure the public's well-being. However, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission can override these recommendations and grant the license anyway. Assuming state licensing, Congressional approval, and eventual funding from the Texas Legislature, the Hudspeth County disposal site will not only be burying waste for Texas, but may find itself the nuclear dumping ground for the nation.

Though the authority claims an agreement with Vermont and Maine will protect Texas from taking other states' waste, that compact would be run by an independent body of commissioners who could contract with any waste generator they wanted. If Texas is the first state to site a waste facility under the Federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Act, it could find itself the final resting place for most of the nation's low-level radioactive waste.

But for this to happen, the TNRCC would have to disregard data collected by Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a consulting group hired by dump opponents, which suggests gross underestimations of the potential contamination of the water table below the site, as well as the potential exposure to nearby humans.

Furthermore, because of technological innovations, the amount of low-level radioactive waste produced annually has been steadily decreasing for years, and some waste-management industry leaders say demand for their service is on the decline. Alvin Staley, a vice president of Waste Management Inc., whose subsidiary runs a disposal site in Barnwell, South Carolina, where most of Texas' waste now goes, says, "We're taking the waste from probably 70 to 80 percent of the United States right now, and we're struggling to remain profitable." Economic pressures may force Texas to open the dump to more states than Maine and Vermont. Unlike South Carolina, which levies a substantial tax on deposits to the Barnwell facility, Texas by its own laws can only break even, and there's no guarantee it won't lose money. According to a 1997 study of the economics of nuclear waste, done by economist F. Gregory Hayden, a new nuclear dump might not even be economically feasible.

Part of the reason for Texans' relative silence on the issue of the dump is simply that West Texas is so remote from most of the state's population centers. And part of the reason is that utility companies, who will save more than 50 percent of their disposal costs if the facility is built, have funded an aggressive public-relations campaign. Guided by an opinion survey showing that the public doesn't trust industry spokesmen, but does trust doctors, they have trotted out medical experts who imply that medical research and treatment could come to a grinding halt if no facility is sited--despite the fact that there is no shortage of existing storage space.

If it's ironic that Texas will not benefit from accepting other states' waste, it's perhaps even more ironic that Mexico may suffer the consequences. "We did not benefit from U.S. nuclear power--if you consider nuclear power a benefit--and now we are asked to take the risks, not only for the waste Texans produced, but from nuclear plants thousands of miles away," says Mexican Senator Norberto Corella of Baja California.

One of those who will shoulder the risks is Ruben Reyes. His brick-oven bakery is in Guadalupe, a pueblito with about 5,000 people and not much in the way of paved roads. At the main public square, where shirtless teenage boys play basketball, a hand-painted sign hangs high on the facade of the old town library: "Clinton y Bush: Llevate Tu Basurero Nuclear" (Clinton and Bush: Take Your Nuclear Dump With You). Reyes hung it there. He mistrusts government's ability to live up to its promises, to follow building specifications, and to manage a facility safely. He believes that in the case of Sierra Blanca, the "falsification and manipulation" of the truth have already begun. And with a hard scowl, the otherwise gentle baker asks a question that state bureaucrats might be hard-pressed to answer.

"If it's so safe," Reyes says, "why don't they put it on the Canadian border?"

If one believes the authority, the dump will be safe enough to be the site of a residential subdivision only a century after it closes, when the land can be returned to "normal use." Governor George Bush, one of the dump's major supporters, has consistently maintained that if the dump isn't safe, it won't be built. But Bush himself has spouted misinformation about what will go in the dump. "Much of the discussion is about disposal of, for example, X-rays," he told an Associated Press reporter in February. "This is low-level radioactive waste. This is not high-powered plutonium."

Actually, the draft license issued by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission specifically permits plutonium from power plants to be buried on the site. And there won't be any disposal of X-rays, because X-ray machines and X-ray film are not radioactive. By volume, only 23 percent of the low-level waste generated in the United States comes from hospitals and research institutions that use the material for diagnosis and treatment. When measured by total radioactivity, more than 90 percent comes from nuclear power plants. The federal classification "low-level" includes most of the irradiated parts of a nuclear reactor, except the spent fuel rods. Because radioactive elements leach out of reactor fuel rods, and reactor parts themselves become irradiated, the dump will contain not only plutonium-239 (with a half-life of 24,000 years), but small amounts of other highly toxic substances such as iodine-129 (half-life: 16 million years) and nickel-59 (half-life: 76,000 years). A radioactive element remains hazardous for 10 or more half-lives. In contrast to these lengthy time spans, most medical waste remains hazardous for less than eight months.

If Bush were relying on the dump's proponents for his information, his comment might be understandable. Rick Jacobi, the general manager of the authority, told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee that the hazardous life of these wastes varied from "as short as five years" to mere "decades."

Jacobi also maintains that the Sierra Blanca site is "perfectly suited" to waste disposal because of its "dry, stable geological formation where groundwater is over 700 feet below the surface" and the fact that it has "minimal rainfall and low storm intensity."

But, as testimony during the public hearing revealed, the authority doesn't know all that much about the geology of the site, possibly because its staff has been loath to explore potential problems. When initial borings indicated the presence of a tectonic fault directly beneath the site, the authority did no further study to determine the exact trajectory or length of the fault and did not ascertain its relationship to other nearby faults. In fact, says geologist H.C. Clark, a Rice University professor emeritus and witness for the dump's opponents, the authority would barely admit the fault's existence. "They called it 'deeply dipping topography' or things like that," Clark says. "They ran the risk that if they did more work and found out that that fault was more significant than their data showed, they'd be in real trouble."

The authority has every reason to ignore less than favorable data. In 1997, an impatient Legislature had come close to zeroing out the authority, which had spent millions with nothing to show for it. So when the authority purchased the $910,000 Faskin Ranch, a 16,000-acre site in Hudspeth County where it hopes to build the disposal facility, without first doing the requisite studies, it seemed determined to make the site work. "When you live next to these people [who work for the authority], you see the breakdown of the scientific process," says Linda Lynch, an artist and dump opponent who grew up in Hudspeth County. "If it ever had any integrity, it immediately started to disintegrate."

The authority's engineers say the site is designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 7.0 on the Richter scale occurring on the West Eagle Mountain fault six miles away, or up to 6.0 on the Richter scale three kilometers directly below the site. An actual quake could be much larger--the Radioactive Waste Management Associates study says the U.S. Geological Survey estimates an earthquake of 7.5 could occur along any of the faults in the area, and according to Jacobi's own notes, other researchers have predicted that an earthquake of up to 7.6 magnitude on the nearby Amargosa fault is "imminent." And these differences in quake size are significant--because the Richter scale is logarithmic, a 7.0 quake is 10 times greater and releases 30 times as much energy as a 6.0 quake.

Nevertheless, authority chief engineer Ruben Alvarado shrugs off the effects of an earthquake. "Why do you believe there are adverse consequences merely because an earthquake occurs?" he asks.

Even opponents of the dump say a big quake isn't the most likely catastrophe. Clark and other experts concur that over the centuries the dump is expected to perform, significant damage is more likely to come from several smaller earthquakes than one large one. But the authority has done no analysis of cumulative seismic impacts on the site.

According to federal guidelines, the man-made features of a radioactive-waste dump represent only a second line of defense against leakage; natural features such as bedrock should provide the primary containment of the waste. Underneath the surface of Sierra Blanca, the bedrock lies fractured like a broken china plate. Nevertheless, the authority asserts that what little water does seep into the ground will take at least 40,000 years to penetrate to the groundwater, and at least another 40,000 years to travel from the water table, which is 600 to 800 feet deep, to the Rio Grande. Even then, says Jacobi, the radioactivity would be at such low concentrations, it would present no health risk.

A study prepared for dump opponents by Radioactive Waste Management Associates casts doubts on these assertions. It points out that erosion, fissures, deep-rooted plants, and floods can cause more rapid travel times for water. It also says high tritium levels measured by the authority indicate that the groundwater could have been replenished by surface water in as few as 40 years (tritium was contained in fallout from nuclear-bomb tests conducted in the '50s). Alvarado counters that those tritium readings resulted from contaminated lab equipment and says there's no tritium at all in the groundwater.

Engineers and geologists have touted deserts as offering favorable conditions for low-level waste disposal. But groundwater contamination at another low-level dump has called that notion into question. In Beatty, Nevada, U.S. Geological Survey scientists were surprised to find levels of tritium and carbon-14 too high to be attributable to 1950s bomb fallout--the tritium was 357 feet deep and just 10 feet above the water table. The company running the Beatty dump, U.S. Ecology, had estimated that groundwater contamination could not occur for "tens of thousands of years."

In fact, all of the nation's original six low-level dumps have leaked, including the two that are currently operating. Furthermore, clean-up efforts run into the millions of dollars.

If the concrete canisters buried at Sierra Blanca release contaminants--rainwater could, for example, seep in and absorb radioactive materials, then leach out--there is no guarantee that the leaks would be contained or cleaned up. Though Texas law states that buried low-level waste must be capable of being "monitored and retrieved," those 50,000-pound canisters of waste most likely won't be going anywhere. "We have no intention of ever pulling one up out of the ground," says Alvarado. In fact, in order for the authority to exhume waste, its license would have to be amended.

Opponents of the dump have been handicapped by the lack of funds to conduct studies and hire expert witnesses--the two studies commissioned by the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, a coalition of anti-dump groups, were ruled inadmissible in the licensing hearing because the authority would not pay the author's $300-an-hour rate to be deposed. Opponents had only a few months to prepare their testimony, and their requests for more time were turned down. By contrast, the authority had nine years to prepare its license application, was able to spend more than $4 million on the hearings alone, and its witnesses were trained using a technical-assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Time and again in their written July opinion, the two judges who conducted the administrative hearing acknowledged weaknesses in the authority's testimony. However, they could base their recommendations only on evidence presented during the hearing, so on several issues the judges ruled in the authority's favor saying opponents did not present controverting evidence. That's why the judges' ultimate recommendation--against granting the license--was a happy surprise for dump opponents. The judges ruled that the authority had failed to adequately address two of 17 concerns: the on-site fault and the socioeconomic impact of the facility.

However, when the authority issued a response to the ruling, it did not even hint at an acknowledgement of any shortcomings: "The authority believes it has met its burden of proof on all issues and feels that it has proposed a safe and suitable site which should be constructed as recommended."

Whether the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission agrees with this belief remains to be seen.

When Congress passed the Low-Level Waste Disposal Act in 1980, legislators were responding to what seemed like an impending crisis. Three dumps had closed because of mismanagement or contamination, and it was assumed the remaining three would soon close. By 1979, one disposal facility, in Barnwell, South Carolina, was receiving 79 percent of the nation's waste. As if to underline the urgency of the waste problem, Barnwell refused to accept radioactive materials from the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.

Congress responded by passing a law making states responsible for low-level waste generated within their borders. They could manage their own waste, or join compacts in which one state would host a dump used by it and several others. The law set a series of deadlines for compliance and threatened that states would have to take title to unspoken-for waste if they had not provided a disposal solution by 1996. In 1992, the Supreme Court struck down that provision, but many states were well on their way to forming compacts and locating sites for their dumps. Nine of these compacts would eventually come into existence across the nation. Initially, Texas decided to go it alone, but the state would later reach a compact with Maine and Vermont.

In 1981, the Legislature entrusted the job of managing Texas' waste to a newly created agency, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority. The authority's board hired Rick Jacobi, a former nuclear-safety engineer at Houston Lighting & Power. Though his story would later change, Jacobi insisted at the time that Texas did not need to join a compact. He set upon the unenviable task of finding a home for Texas' dump.

Not yet practiced in deflecting resident opposition, the authority first set its sights on Dell City in northeast Hudspeth County in February 1983. But organized resistance soon put an end to that idea. The search then proceeded to South Texas--whose clay soil, plus the fact that it was not on top of an aquifer, made it an ideal region--but legislative actions turned the authority away (see "How to Site a Nuclear Waste Dump for $50 Million"). Finally, the authority designated a site near Fort Hancock in southwest Hudspeth County. But the authority had strayed too close to Hudspeth's only politically and economically powerful neighbor, El Paso County. And El Paso sued.

"To run over this county [Hudspeth] should have been as easy as Iraq seizing Kuwait," wrote state district judge Bill Moody in his ruling on the case in 1991. "However, just like cavalry, El Paso County came charging over the hill to try to protect its small and defenseless neighbor and itself."

Moody ruled that the Fort Hancock site was entirely inappropriate. "It makes no practical sense to build a facility of this nature in the only area of Texas that has ever experienced a significant earthquake," Moody wrote, adding that the site posed a threat to the water supply and nearby Native American rock art.

Opponents of the dump point to Moody's ruling as evidence that Sierra Blanca, 35 miles from Fort Hancock, is also an unsuitable site. Jacobi admits that the two sites are geologically similar, but he believes Moody's rejection of the Fort Hancock location was all about politics, not science. "We were facing a hometown judge, and we didn't really have much of a chance," Jacobi says. "I don't think we got a fair trial. Judge Moody is not a hydrologist; he's not a geologist; he's not a biologist; he's not a meteorologist."

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.

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.

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.

Of course, the more parties who dump at the site, the lower the rates will be--which is the main reason utilities lobbied in the early '90s for Texas to join a compact in the first place. Jacobi, who did an about-face and began to support the compact, argues that, despite state laws forbidding out-of-state waste, without a compact Texas could be forced to accept waste from anyone under the Interstate Commerce Act. However, in a 1992 letter to then-Governor Ann Richards, Attorney General Dan Morales wrote, "There is a reasonable basis for a legal prediction that, in the absence of a compact, Texas can successfully provide for disposal of low-level radioactive waste generated in public, without sacrificing our ability to exclude out-of-state waste." In 1993, Richards signed the compact into law, although Congress has yet to approve it.

Contrary to Jacobi's argument that the compact will protect Texas, governor-appointed compact commissioners, six from Texas and one each from Maine and Vermont, would be specifically permitted to contract with any public or private waste generator to accept their waste.

Utilities fought hard against an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, that would have limited the dump to accepting waste from Maine, Vermont, and Texas. The Maine Yankee nuclear plant, which hopes to be able to "sublease" its space in the dump to other waste generators, threatened to pull support of the compact if the amendment. Though approved by both houses, the amendment was jettisoned by a conference committee last week.

According to HL&P's estimates, its savings will be about $500,000 a year. However, Texas Utilities spokesman Eric Schmitt says dependability, not dollar savings, is most important to the utilities. He points to the fact that Texas and several other states were prevented by the South Carolina Legislature from dumping at Barnwell for 12 months in 1994 and 1995 (nuclear plants are required to have on-site storage capacity for five years' worth of waste).

"From month to month, from year to year, we don't know if the Barnwell facility will be available to us or not," Schmitt says. "We want something we can count on."

It's not clear that rate-payers would benefit from lower disposal costs. Schmitt says that whatever savings TU could muster from shipping to Sierra Blanca instead of South Carolina likely would not get translated into rate cuts for customers because waste-disposal costs amount to less than 1 percent of the total operation and maintenance costs for Comanche Peak, the nuclear plant TU owns. But Graham Painter, a spokesman for Houston Lighting & Power, insists that "Every dollar that we save is a dollar we don't have to get from customers in Texas. We're talking about costs that customers shoulder. We're really not talking about hitting the utility's bottom line." Still, impending deregulation, which will be a major issue in the next legislative session in Texas, could allow utilities to pocket the savings.

Beyond direct costs, radioactive waste represents a major liability for utilities, one they are anxious to foist off on the state. Texas will shoulder responsibility for all the waste deposited at Sierra Blanca, including that from Maine and Vermont. And liability can be expensive--after a protracted legal battle with the private operator of its dump site, Maxey Flats, Kentucky was forced to shoulder the cost of cleaning it up--$144 million over the next 100 years.

The authority needs three things before it can begin construction on Sierra Blanca: Congress must approve the compact; the Texas Legislature must appropriate funds for the facility; and the TNRCC commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and have a well-deserved reputation for supporting industry, must license the facility. So far, the TNRCC's executive director, Barry McBee, has recommended granting the license, but the agency's Public Interest Council lawyers--whose budget is set by the executive director, and who were given no money to fight the Sierra Blanca site in the hearings--have recommended against it. The independent judges who conducted the license hearing also recommended the license not be granted, but the commissioners can review the information and decide for themselves--a process that may take months.

Surprised by the judges' ruling, opponents have theorized that it's a delay tactic to postpone the license until after the election, when the pressure is off Governor Bush. Up to now, Bush has been successful at winning over Hispanic voters, but his support of the dump has led some Mexican politicians to compare him to California Governor Pete Wilson, who supported a referendum to deny illegal immigrants education and medical care.

Meanwhile, other states are stalling on finding their own dump sites, perhaps in hopes that someone else will be first. Economist Gregory Hayden, a commissioner for the Central Interstate Compact, which encompasses a region from Louisiana to Nebraska, made national headlines in 1997 when he issued the report questioning the need for any new dumps at all. "New disposal facilities are not needed and would not be financially viable," Hayden predicted. "The only driver for new sites has been the Compact law, not demand."

Of the nine existing compacts, four have postponed or canceled their siting processes. The Southwest Compact's chosen site, in California, is tied up in court. The Central-Interstate Compact has applied to license a site in Nebraska's poorest county. In the Southeast Compact, North Carolina is considering defunding its siting process. The Midwest Compact has become practiced at passing the buck: when South Dakota was selected as the dump state, its residents turned out in record numbers to vote to leave the compact. Illinois was the next state selected; it pulled out as well because other compact states refused to assume shared liability for the waste. Michigan left because the siting process threatened to violate its own environmental laws, and Ohio, the current Midwest Compact dump state, has canceled its search for a site.

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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