The Texas-Vermont-Maine Nuclear Dump


 

In April 1994, the Vermont legislature passed a bill establishing an
unprecedented compact with the states of Maine and Texas to dispose of nuclear waste. Now
that this nuclear deal has passed the U.S. Congress and been signed into law by President
Clinton, “low level” nuclear waste from the three states—actually all of
the nuclear waste except for spent nuclear reactor fuel rods—can be shipped across
the nation’s highways to the town of Sierra Blanca, Texas. Sierra Blanca is an
impoverished, predominantly Mexican-American community less than 16 miles from the Mexican
border.

Harsh and delicate, this land is more demanding of its inhabitants
than are many other places, and so fewer humans choose to live there; often moving to such
a place, where poverty is common and where jobs are few, entails sacrifice or, at best,
risk. Others come because low population and little industry have in the past meant clean
air and water. It is a land that has attracted artists, like Donald Judd, and seekers,
like Woody Guthrie. Like other once-isolated parts of the world, it is being swept up in
the schemes of faraway interests.

Texas governor George W. Bush and independent congressperson Bernie
Sanders (I-VT) both see it as a sacrifice zone. This past August, Vermont activists were
visited by a delegation of long-time antinuclear activists from West Texas, three of whom
spent ten days touring Vermont and meeting with activists and public officials. They
testified at the State House, and before the State Nuclear Advisory Panel. They
participated in a five-day walk for the abolition of nuclear weapons, met with Rep.
Sanders, one of the compact’s leading proponents, and spent a few days at an
antinuclear activist camp in southern Vermont. On August 22, they were joined by two
Sierra Blanca residents, who spoke at a large antinuclear rally in the southern Vermont
town of Brattleboro. The rally, the camp, and a subsequent civil disobedience action at
the gates of Vermont’s sole nuclear plant were part of an effort by the regional
Citizen’s Awareness Network and the D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource
Service to launch a major new Nuclear Free New England Campaign, and rekindle some of the
energies that made nuclear power such a powerful public issue in New England in the late
1970s and early 1980s.

The Texans shared many experiences of fighting the Sierra Blanca
nuclear dump, a struggle that has already lasted some 15 years. Vermonters heard of
numerous encounters with the nuclear industry and Governor Bush’s representatives.
They were told about concrete test canisters that are already cracking and of dramatic
testimony presented in innumerable public gatherings against the proposed dump. They
shared documentary evidence showing that all of the arguments put forward in favor of the
dump were misleading and essentially fraudulent.

The Vermont legislature’s 1994 compact vote followed several
months of hearings in which a few Vermont towns agreed to consider a burial site for
nuclear waste. The towns were rewarded handsomely for their initial interest and, not
surprisingly, only the town of Vernon—“company town” for Vermont’s
only nuclear plant—agreed to take the process any further. Vernon was deemed to be
geologically unsuitable for nuclear waste burial, so the search for an alternative began.
The Texas legislature had passed a bill authorizing the siting of a nuclear waste dump
within an approximately 20 mile by 20 mile portion of arid Hudspeth County and was
actively seeking customers. The “compact” approved by the Maine and Vermont
legislatures commits the two states to each contributing some $27 million to the project,
enough to cover most of Texas’ construction bill for the facility.

Twenty Texas counties and five Mexican states passed resolutions
against the dump, and the Mexican Congress has repeatedly expressed its opposition, but
public discussion of the nuclear compact in Vermont seemed limited to an occasional letter
to the editor. This spring, however, a number of events helped re-energize the debate. On
April 16, a city councilor from the town of Juárez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande
from Sierra Blanca, began a 24-day hunger strike, which brought numerous letters of
protest from Mexican officials to the planned nuclear dump. A number of Vermont activists
once again began to take notice.

The Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, in cooperation with
activists from West Texas, gave the issue a high priority in its summer campaigns, due to
the impending congressional vote. On May 1, Texas activist and radio host Jim Hightower
went to Burlington to speak at a major fundraiser for Bernie Sanders, who has played an
especially vocal role in ushering the nuclear compact through Congress. Sierra Club
members and others gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel to voice their objections to the
Sierra Blanca dump and Vermont’s role in creating it. Hightower made his objections
clear in his speech to hundreds of Sanders supporters inside.

On May 11, about a dozen activists met with Sanders at his office.
The delegation included two University of Vermont students who had just completed a
thorough analysis of the scientific arguments in support of the Texas dump; they found
numerous unanswered questions and more than a few outright falsehoods in the
proponents’ arguments. Several participants in the meeting were astonished by the
“independent” Sanders’s vehement and unrelenting support for shipping
nuclear waste 2,400 miles to West Texas. It was the best site geologically, he claimed,
much better than having nuclear waste scattered across the country. The August meeting
with the Texas delegation featured Sanders at his most obstinate, insisting that he’d
done the right thing and that he was no longer interested in the issue now that the
compact bill had passed the House.

 

Nuclear Politics, Texas-Style

On July 29 in the U.S. House debate on the Texas-Maine-Vermont
nuclear waste compact, Sanders argued that the compact and the dump site were unrelated
issues. He also said that “the evidence is clear that Texas is the best place to get
rid of this waste.” In an August meeting he told several of us that he is
“confident that Texas will do the right thing” in siting the dump. Sanders has
faith in the process as it is practiced in Texas.

Here’s a quick recap of that process. After eight years of
being run out, legislated out, and litigated out of site after site, the Texas Low-Level
Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA) found itself in 1991 many millions of
dollars down and still at square one. To its rescue that spring rode the Texas Legislature
with HR 2665, which decreed that, “notwithstanding any other law,” the site must
be located within Hudspeth County. This law, which drew a 370 square mile “box”
around the town of Sierra Blanca, on the eastern side of the county, was the response of
nuclear utility district legislators to the January decision in a state court throwing the
Authority out of its previous site, on the western side of Hudspeth county, on the grounds
that it had violated its own siting criteria by disregarding or misrepresenting geology
and hydrology, among other things. The state officials cut a back room deal with El Paso
County, the plaintiff—move the site farther east, and we won’t sue again.

By 1992 the Authority had selected the Faskin Ranch within the
“box” and was taking steps to acquire it. Gayle Schroder, whose company owned
the land, later told the San Antonio Express<D>-News<D> that the
move surprised him, since at that time no state scientists had asked permission to set
foot on the ranch nor had they tested the land for fissures or faults nor had they drilled
test wells to check the groundwater. But they bought the 16,000 acre ranch (for a 440 acre
dump—room for growth) anyway, and, a month after they announced their intent, another
dumper, MERCO Joint Venture, appeared from nowhere to buy another Sierra Blanca ranch in
order to meet their July deadline for providing a site for “beneficial use” land
application of New York City’s urban industrial sewage sludge. NYC was under a court
order to cease poisoning the ocean with the stuff, and New York law forbade such
“beneficial use” application of the heavy metal-laden toxic on that state’s
agricultural land, so it had hired haulers like MERCO to find places where protections
were nonexistent or more pliant. The result: the largest sewage dump in the world on 150
square miles of high Chihuahua desert, with a second such ranch currently filing for a
similar registration. More polluters fouling the air and water make it tougher to
determine specific blame, so dumps beget dumps.

With a site at last, the TLLRWDA set about building a scientific
argument for its already-determined location by commissioning studies and identifying
“experts” to speak on its behalf. By 1996, when the draft license was issued by
the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the license application had swelled
from these efforts into a 60,000 page, 28 volume document.

Sierra Blanca has a largely Mexican-American population, and the
percentage of Spanish-speaking residents is high, as one might expect, along the entire
length of the border. This is an area where communities without water and sewage
facilities are still constructed, where U.S. companies build factories in Mexican border
towns and house their managerial staff across the river, and where the U.S. Government
maintains an army, complete with checkpoints, a network of radar balloons, an electronic
surveillance grid laid out over sparsely populated <D>terrain, and,
sometimes, camouflaged troops hidden in the brush along footpaths where drug traffic is
suspected.

The advice given by two Texas A&M professors in their
state-commissioned public opinion study in 1984, at the beginning of the state’s
search for a likely site, was to find a community in which English is a second language.
The general public is going to oppose this dump, they found, and the more that people feel
they know about the project, the higher their level of opposition is likely to be. “A
preferred methodology may be to develop public information campaigns targeted at special
populations. One population that might benefit from such a campaign is Hispanics,
particularly those with little formal education and low incomes. This group is the least
informed of all segments of the population. The Authority should be aware, however, that
increasing the level of knowledge of Hispanics may simply increase opposition to the site,
inasmuch as we have discovered a strong relationship in the total sample between increased
perceived knowledge and increased opposition.”

The issuance of a draft license for the dump kicked in a process in
which public hearings and qualified court opposition is allowed. Nearly 600 people, from
Texas and other states and from Mexico, asked to speak, and many asked to present their
opposition in court. Two administrative law judges determined who might be “affected
parties” in the case, rejecting, among others, the Mexican states of Chihuahua and
Coahuila (the “deep pockets” for commissioning studies and experts, dump
opponents noted) but accepting governments from three Texas counties, plus the cities of
El Paso and Juárez. With the individuals and groups also admitted, the number of parties
in the case came to 21.

Two years of legal proceedings ensued, with the nuclear utilities
and the State, represented by the TLLRWDA, the TNRCC Executive Director whose office had
issued the draft license, and the TNRCC’s Public Interest Counsel (PIC), in theory
the voice for the people of Texas. The two PIC attorneys, after conducting their own
investigation, opposed licensing, but their budget, determined by the pro-dump executive
director, has not allowed for commissioning studies or hiring expert witnesses. Dump
opponents, strapped for funds, provided few witnesses to contest the State’s parade
of witnesses. The 1997 Texas Legislature provided the Authority with $5.6 million for the
“licensing process.”

Even so, the two judges ruled in July 1998 that, in their opinion,
the license should not be issued. The state, they said, had failed to adequately
characterize an earthquake fault directly below the site. In fact, the state had failed to
recognize a fault beneath its own test trench until the two judges pointed it out; in the
hearings, the Texas dump agency had referred to the fault as an “anomaly.”
Compact opponents have mapped out 64 significant earthquakes that have occurred in the
vicinity within the past 70 years, and possible links to the Sierra Blanca fault have not
been fully studied.

The State had also overlooked the socioeconomic effects of the dump.
The Texas Authority’s socioeconomic “expert” had gone so far as to predict
that, even if the dump should leak, it might benefit Sierra Blanca, since Superfund sites
are eligible for all sorts of federal benefits. The July decision read, in part: “The
[judges] believe, moreover, that these two areas of deficiency are not only cumulative but
compound one another. The Applicant’s disinclination to examine fully the on-site
fault can only heighten those socioeconomic issues relating to public perception and
confidence in the project that the Applicant has markedly failed to address in this
proceeding to date.” The judges noted that there is no rule or law in Texas that
requires the State to consider environmental justice in issuing this license.

Governor Bush’s Democratic opponent in this fall’s
elections, along with many journalists, viewed the judges’ ruling on socioeconomic
issues as the first official validation of the dump opponents’ claims of
environmental racism in the siting process. While Hudspeth County may have only 2,300
residents living in an area the size of Connecticut, nearly a third of them live in the
town center of Sierra Blanca, just five miles from the proposed dump site. On July 26,
over 300 people joined state officials from both sides of the border in blockading the
international bridge at El Paso/Juárez to protest the dump and the compact.

The Texas judges’ ruling was called a Proposal For Decision,
meaning that it is no more than their advice to the three TNRCC Commissioners, all
appointed by dump backer, Governor George W. Bush, whose statements that he is unsure
whether he wants to run for president in the year 2000 are as widely believed as were Bill
Clinton’s sex disclaimers. The nuclear industry, which has been trying to establish a
dump somewhere, anywhere, for over 25 years, will likely be highly supportive of a
candidate who delivers, and the nuclear industry, through GE and Westinghouse, owns NBC
and CBS.

Texas and Vermont both currently ship their waste to a dump in
Barnwell, South Carolina, but that state has added a surcharge and resultant high dumping
fees displease the industry. The Texas dump license provides for the State to
“recover its costs,” not to profit, from waste generators. That means that the
more waste the dump can attract, the cheaper those fees will be, and to that end, the
legislature has pursued Bernie Sanders’s beloved compact with Maine and Vermont. The
compact, which passed the Texas House in 1993 by (anonymous) voice vote, attracted little
attention at the time. Sierra Blanca’s State Representative’s yea vote went
unreported in his district for a year and a half; it came to light only because Sierra
Blanca grocer Bill Addington traveled to Maine, where a public referendum was held on
waste disposal issues, to ask Mainers to vote against poisoning his home. They didn’t
listen and in the debates he was told of his Representative’s vote, which somehow was
known in Maine but not in Texas.

 

Compact supporters argue that the agreement will protect Texas from
being obligated to accept waste from more than three states, but a loophole allows five
Bush-appointed commissioners to accept any amount of waste anytime from anyone. Rep. Lloyd
Doggett of Austin and Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota added an amendment, passed by both
houses this year, to limit waste to three states; the amendment was stripped in conference
committee. The Boston Globe recently reported that most of the remaining New
England states are also contemplating sending their nuclear waste to West Texas.

 

Downplaying Nuclear Hazards

The Texas and Vermont arguments for the dump also rest on
hydrological arguments, but while the region averages only a few inches of rainfall a
year, rains are often “cataclysmic,” in the words of one area resident, creating
fissures that channel water deeply and unpredictably. Sierra Blanca averages 12 inches of
rain a year, while the already leaking Hanford nuke dump in Richland, Washington gets 6
inches, and the leaking dump at Beatty, Nevada gets only 4. Despite the claimed average
depth to groundwater of several hundred feet, Sierra Blanca resident Maria Mendez reported
at the August gatherings in Vermont that none of her neighbors’ wells are any deeper
than 70 feet.

In addition to all the site-specific arguments, there is the
likelihood of serious trucking accidents en route to any distant nuclear dump. The
probability of such accidents should be apparent to anyone who has traveled the
nation’s interstate highways of late. The planned route would carry nuclear waste
some 2,400 miles from Vermont, along a route that follows Interstate 84 west out of
Hartford, Connecticut, to 81 along the Appalachian Mountains, to Routes 40, 30, 20, and 10
through such major cities as Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, and Dallas. Activists along
the route are discussing various means of highlighting the dangers, including physically
blocking trucks if necessary.

Proponents of the dump also downplay the actual contents of the
“low level” nuclear waste that would be shipped to the Texas site. Waste that is
designated “high level” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contains just one
component: the extremely radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods, which are now submerged
underwater at reactor sites across the country in anticipation of a federally mandated
burial ground. Residents of Nevada have vehemently resisted government plans to bury these
used fuel rods in the Yucca Mountain region, just an hour from Las Vegas.

Low level waste is everything else, from the control rods that
absorb excess radioactivity and prevent a nuclear chain reaction to used reactor
components and, eventually, the walls of the reactor. The longer a nuclear reactor
operates, the more radioactive these components become, and the greater the variety of
long-lived “transuranic” (heavier-than-uranium) wastes that is generated.
Proponents make much of the least radioactive components: gloves, tools, and medical
waste. According to Department of Energy statistics compiled by the Nuclear Information
and Resource Service, medical waste contributed only 0.004 percent of all the
radioactivity in Vermont, Maine, and Texas’ low-level waste stream through 1994. By
volume, the nuclear power industry contributes about 85 percent of all low level waste
nationally. A large portion of the remainder is of short half-life—the radioactivity
decays away in a manner of weeks or months—and would essentially cease to be
radioactive after just a few years of carefully contained storage.

By commingling all the various “low level” waste
components, the industry gains sympathy from those concerned about the benefits of nuclear
medicine, for example, but in the long run unnecessarily compounds the problem. The first
step in any more sensible solution to the problem of nuclear waste is to keep the various
components separated in terms of the strength and duration of their radioactivity. The
second step is to shut down Vermont Yankee and other operating reactors, so as to stop
generating more waste, and the third step is to keep the reactor components exactly where
they are—above ground and subject to constant monitoring.

There is no place in Vermont, Texas, or anywhere on earth, where
nuclear waste can be safely buried. What Texas is proposing is essentially an unlined
trench, in which the waste will be buried in concrete canisters; the one test canister
that is available for public view is already cracking. The record to date is one canister
unloaded, one crane accident. Twenty years ago, antinuclear activists said there was no
viable solution to the problem of nuclear waste and that all reactors operating at the
time should be shut down. While no new reactors have been ordered since the Three Mile
Island accident in 1979, each of the 100-plus reactors that are now operating presents the
same unsolvable dilemma.

This summer’s renewed debate about nuclear waste and the Texas
compact has touched a number of raw nerves, and put Vermonters face-to-face with an issue
that many would rather wish away. Building a nuclear waste dump and importing waste from
other states to fill it are not popular ideas in Texas either; one doesn’t mention
them in campaigns unless pressed. Demonstrations are frequent. Texas has seen years of
marches, parades, sit-ins, international bridge closings, hunger strikes, and benefit
concerts on the issue. When a utility-funded puppet group called Advocates for Responsible
Disposal (currently under the gun for illegal communication during the hearings with TNRCC
Commissioners) generates op-ed pieces from its stable of sympathetic medical and research
professionals in Texas, unpaid responses from outraged opponents appear all across the
state.

Why such a push? Utilities want a discount dump, of course, but the
nuclear industry most emphatically wants a new dump, a dump that, however primitive in
reality, can be touted as a state-of-the-art solution to the old problem of nuclear waste
disposal. A planned new generation of quick-to-construct, quick-to-license nuclear plants
can rely on this dump, once the technology is tested in the Third World countries where
successive U.S. presidents have been promoting our nuclear technology. The cry of Clean
Power, No Greenhouse Gases has replaced the old chant of Power Too Cheap To Meter that
accompanied the first nuclear plants in the 1950s.

George Bush continues driving this project forward, aided by most of
the Congressional delegation of the three compact states. The EPA is cooperating by not
requiring an Environmental Impact Statement on this “state” facility. The
licensing hearing was scheduled for October 22, just two weeks before the Texas
gubernatorial election that was supposed to demonstrate Bush’s widespread support to
the Republicans who will be considering their options for the millennium.

Should the license be denied, leaving it to the 1999 Texas
Legislature to draw yet another box around another luckless community, there is an option.
On September 16 the TNRCC commissioners received a letter from the oil-bust town of
Andrews, located near the New Mexico border in the Texas Panhandle, urging the
commissioners to consider their town as an alternative to Sierra Blanca. A private company
there already operates a dump for chemical wastes and a “storage and processing”
site for low-level and mixed radwaste, and boosters claim that it enjoys wide public
support. The company, Waste Control Specialists, is coincidentally half-owned by one of
George Bush’s biggest campaign contributors. If the governor is forced, kicking and
fighting, to toss the dump to a backer who is sure to be grateful in the 2000 race, it may
not prove too painful a briar patch.

Meanwhile there have been international demonstrations, including
shutdowns of all five El Paso-Juárez bridges, and a three-day hunger strike outside the
United Nation following a rally in Vermont.

In Vermont, residents still cherish the image of the Green Mountain
State as an environmentally pristine place and tend to overlook any realities that may
tarnish this image. The horrific idea that the State is addressing its nuclear waste
problem by shipping it to a politically powerless West Texas community is illuminating the
real consequences of the complacency and arrogance that too often characterize public
debate in Vermont, as well as in many other places where it remains politically
acceptable, even in “progressive” circles, to ignore the harsh underside of the
thin veneer of 1990s-style “American” affluence.

   

Brian Tokar is the author of Earth for Sale (South End
Press. Gary Oliver is a cartoonist who lives in Marfa, Texas about 80 miles downwind and
down-drainage from Sierra Blanca.