The Texas-Vermont-Maine nuclear dump: bringing environmental racism home

Article from 1998 on the dumping of nuclear waste from Vermont and Maine in Texas. The article details the involvement of Bernie Sanders in sponsoring the bill that led to the dump being authorized.

Submitted by Mike Harman on January 11, 2017

Brian Tokar and Gary Oliver
The Green Mountains of Vermont evoke an image of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, snow-covered mountain peaks and sparkling clear rivers, rough hewn farmsteads and a unique variety of down-home progressive politics. In April of 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.

A world away from the lush Green Mountains of Vermont there is a river, not all that large as rivers go in the wider world, but in this desert country it is called the Rio Grande. Thanks to an earlier war of expansion it forms a national boundary between a Third World nation and another Third World situated on the fringe of what is often called the most advanced country on earth. It rises in Colorado and passes through dammed lakes and pepper fields in New Mexico before it becomes the sewer for the city of Juárez and the obstacle that pilgrims seeking a better life must cross on their way to El Norte. For a time it stretches through planted fields, and then it turns southward, away from roads and towns into the great open spaces known as the Despoblado. This is part of the vast Chihuahua desert, and it is empty to those without appreciation for its life forms and for its scale. To others it is some of the most breathtaking country there is.

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 and Ambrose Bierce. Like other once-isolated parts of the world, it is being swept up the schemes of faraway interests.

Texas governor George W. Bush and independent congressman Bernie Sanders 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 both 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 eighties.

The Texans shared many years of experiences of fighting the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump, a struggle that has already lasted some fifteen 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. We shared documentary evidence showing that all of the arguments put forward in favor of the dump are misleading and essentially fraudulent. We all gained a much clearer understanding of the politics of nuclear waste in the late 1990s, and the unseemly political maneuvers which have created this nuclear atrocity in our names.

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 (see below) 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 16th, 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 1st, 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 11th, 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” congressman’s vehement and unrelenting support for shipping nuclear waste 2400 miles to West Texas. It was the best site geologically, he claimed, much better than having nuclear waste scattered across the country, and besides, how dare we accuse Bernie Sanders of environmental racism? 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, Rep. Bernie Sanders, a sponsor of the bill, had 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. Rep. 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 and in an area “circumscribed on the north by 31 degrees north latitude, 15′ and 00″; on the south by 31 degrees north latitude, 00′ and 00″; on the east by 105 degrees longitude, 00′ and 00″; and on the west by 105 degrees longitude, 22′ and 30″.” 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-News 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 to build 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. A concerned citizen wanting to monitor or challenge the state’s case might be expected to need a considerable amount of time and expertise, especially if that citizen possessed limited or no fluency in English, the only language in which the document is available.

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 colonias, communities without water and sewage facilities, are still constructed, where US companies build factories in Mexican border towns and house their managerial staff across the river, and where the US Government maintains an army, complete with checkpoints, a network of radar balloons, an electronic surveillance grid laid out over rough, sparsely populated terrain, and, sometimes, camouflaged troops hidden in the brush along footpaths where drug traffic is suspected. Such a patrol last year shot and killed Esequiel Hernández, a high school student herding his goats, in the county immediately downstream from the proposed nuclear dump site. Poverty and unemployment are high, and the seat of government in Austin is over 500 miles distant.

That the State of Texas had sought from the outset to find a community in which English is a second language is not even a matter of speculation; it was 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. The general public everywhere 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, in theory the voice for the people of Texas. The two PIC attorneys, after conducting their own investigation, oppose license, 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.

Gov. 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 2300 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 26th, over 300 people joined state officials from both sides of the border in blockading the international bridge at El Paso/Juárez to protest both 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 ships their n-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 the waste generators. That means that the more waste that the dump can attract, the cheaper those fees will be, and to that end, the Legislature has pursued Bernie Sanders’ 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 own 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, like George W. Bush, 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

Texas’ and Vermont’s 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 twelve inches of rain a year, while the already leaking Hanford nuke dump in Richland, Washington gets six inches, and the leaking dump at Beatty, Nevada gets only four. Despite the claimed average depth to groundwater of several hundred feet, Sierra Blanca resident and grandmother 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 2400 miles from Vermont, along a route that follows Interstate 84 west out of Hartford, CT., to 81 along the Appalachian Mountains, to Routes 40, 30 and 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. These actions would give an entirely new meaning to the now-coveted “Made in Vermont” label.

Proponents of the dump, such as Bernie Sanders and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, 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 reactors 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 itself. 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+ reactors that are now operating presents the same fundamentally 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, the undeclared Presidential candidate, 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 Oct. 22, just two weeks before the Texas gubernatorial election that is 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, la lucha sigue. In October international demonstrations, including shutdowns of all five El Paso-Juárez bridges are planned for the Día de la Raza, October 12th. On the same day a group of Mexican officials and elected representatives will have begun a three day hunger strike outside the United Nations in New York, following an early October 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 beginning help illuminate 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 and Gary Oliver

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