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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Small Town of Sierra Blanca Grapples with Big Problem: Nuclear Waste

Air Date: Week of

A small community just 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border is poised to become a nuclear waste dump. Officials and engineers have been bent over their blueprints for 15 years, designing a low level nuclear disposal site for the sparsely populated Texan town of Sierra Blanca. State authorities say the radioactive waste will rest safely sealed in concrete and buried beneath the rocky desert. But the site has yet to receive its final licensing. And some residents are disputing safety aspects of the proposal. They also say the site was chosen because its residents are poor and Latino, and have little political clout. Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A small community just 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border is poised to become a nuclear waste dump. Officials and engineers have been bent over their blueprints for 15 years, designing a low-level nuclear disposal site for the sparsely-populated Texan town of Sierra Blanca. State authorities say the radioactive waste will rest safely, sealed in concrete and buried beneath the rocky desert. But the site has yet to receive its final licensing, and some residents are disputing the safety aspects of the proposal. They also say the site was chosen because its residents are poor and Latino and have little political clout. Ingrid Lobet reports.

(Traffic sounds)

LOBET: Semis motor past Sierra Blanca, a dusty 2-exit town off Interstate 10. Only 750 people live here. On the streets you hear a mix of English and Spanish. The windows at 2 former filling stations, a couple of restaurants, and the old movie theater are all boarded up. But the expected arrival of nuclear waste is bringing wealth to this town. Until recently it had no nurses, no ambulance, and no garbage collection. Steve Gibbs, president of the tiny Bank of Sierra Blanca, points to examples of progress from inside an air-conditioned pickup.

GIBBS: This is the Sierra Blanca Medical Clinic. We're in the process of recruiting a physician, and what we're trying to do is establish primary medical care county-wide. There's been an impact on our school. The computer labs, the fiber-optic networks. This is the new library, the new park.

LOBET: Four point two million dollars have come into Sierra Blanca since a ranch nearby became a proposed nuclear waste dump. That goes a long way in a town where the average income is $8,000. Power plants and hospitals pay much of these fees in the hope that they'll soon be able to haul their radioactive waste at lower cost to a 480-acre site here, where it will be grouted into concrete cylinders and buried permanently in the desert. Power plant owners in and outside of Texas back the plan, as do most of the state's politicians. Supporters say there will be jobs and even more civic improvements. But a coalition of local residents, environmental, and civil rights groups are fighting them every step of the way. Sierra Blanca is already the largest dump site in the world for city sludge.

(A train whistles)

LOBET: Three times a week, a special train whistles in with cars full of New York sewage sludge. The sludge is sprayed on a nearby 90,000-acre ranch as fertilizer. But every year it also deposits thousands of pounds of arsenic, copper, and lead. Maria Mendez lives down the highway from Sierra Blanca, in a lone house near an abandoned school. She balances her granddaughter in her lap and says since the sludge project began, her grandchildren suffer asthma that her own children never had.

MENDEZ: Like, right now I'm sitting here and I'm itching all over. I will take a shower and it will stop for a while and then I come back. I even changed detergents. I still get this itchy feeling and everybody complains, you know. I said we're just like cows scratching here and there because it's so bad.

LOBET: But Mendez fears the consequences of having a nuclear waste dump near her home will be even worse. Sierra Blanca will technically be a low- level nuclear waste site, because highly-radioactive spent fuel rods can't be stored there. But elements with half-lives in the thousands of years will be allowed in low concentrations. Mendez doesn't believe the assurances of some hydrologists who say the aquifer under the site is protected by 700-800 feet of nearly impenetrable bedrock and soil.

MENDEZ: They claim that it's about 700 to 800 feet deep. Well, my closest neighbor's deepest well is 70 feet, SEVENTY feet deep. What's wrong with these people? The water goes all over the place. It's going to flow all the way down to the Rio, to the Rio Grande.

(Traffic sounds)

LOBET: When Maria Mendez drives the 23 miles to Sierra Blanca, she passes the proposed site. It's flat and sandy, part of the larger wind-swept basin covered with mesquite and yucca and surrounded by brown and charcoal mountains. A trailer sits there. Work crew have already excavated what will be the first trench if the site is licensed.

WOMAN: Johnny's not there right now.

(Other voices join in, in English and Spanish)

LOBET: Guerra General Store in Sierra Blanca is a meeting place for opponents of the dump. Gloria Guerra Allington runs it with her son, and these days often without him, as he travels to New England and Washington, DC, to organize opposition to the disposal site.

ALLINGTON: How do we know that those canisters can withstand what they're storing? There's quite a force, they have the radiation. And also bringing it here, thousands and thousands of miles from near the Canadian border? Completely illogical. Doesn't make sense. (Aside to customers) Come in, Margie. How are y'all doing. (Speaks in Spanish)

LOBET: One thing opponents of the dump fear is a large magnitude earthquake. Sierra Blanca lies in the seismically active part of Texas, the trans-Pecos, and has had 2 major earthquakes in the last 100 years. But Reuben Alvarado, chief engineer at the Texas authority in charge of low-level nuclear waste, says opponents are exaggerating the dangers.

ALVARADO: When all things are taken into consideration, the trans-Pecos of Texas is a very stable part of the earth's crust. It is correct that the trans-Pecos is the most seismically-active part of the state. But when you compare it to southern California or other places on the Pacific Rim, you know, through Japan or down through Chile or up in Alaska, or even if you compare it to the area around Salt Lake City, it's almost seismically inert.

LOBET: Alvarado and the state's geologists concede there is a fault under the proposed site. But they believe there's no activity along it. And they say there are other safeguards.

ALVARADO: Unless there is some way to get the radionucleides from the trench down through 600 feet of fill and then into that, and then another couple hundred feet down into the groundwater table, I mean there is no mode of transport. So the fact that the fault's there or isn't there really doesn't make a whole lot of difference.

LOBET: Alvarado says even if you had an earthquake, a crack, and a leak, you'd also need a Biblical rain to wash radioactive material into the water table. And although some people in town say they remember waist-high floods from when they were children, at the other end of Main Street in the lobby of the Sierra Hotel, owner James Schilling says he's satisfied that the state knows what it's doing.

SCHILLING: Let me tell you. I've ranched out here for a long time. Our water was 1,500-foot deep and from about 30-foot down you were in solid rock all the way. Now tell me, how is water going to leach down to that? It's impossible. They sometimes say that's a 1 in 100 years' rain. Well, I think out here I think that would be 1 in 1,000 years, probably.

LOBET: Other Sierra Blancans are less confident, and they point to how the town got chosen as a site. They say it was more politics than science. One early preferred site was near a reservoir used by the city of Corpus Christi. It was also near a ranch owned by a former Texas governor. The legislature passed a law that forced officials to look elsewhere. The next site was near El Paso, but that site was dropped when the city sued. In Sierra Blanca, a small group of local officials felt the site could bring in needed money, and soon attention focused there. In a poll taken in 1992, 63% of Sierra Blancans were against the facility, but these residents may be hard-put to find a voice. Sierra Blanca isn't legally a town. It has no city council.

(Traffic sounds)

LOBET: Ninety miles west on the interstate lies the border city of El Paso, with 750,000 people. There are signs El Pasoans are increasingly taking an interest in the proposed project.

CARPENTER: Eighty-four percent of El Pasoans are opposed to the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump because of all the things we've been talking about this morning. Twelve percent support, and I don't know why, I don't get that; if you do support it we'd like to hear from you, 880-5763.

LOBET: Radio station KROD has dedicated talk time to Sierra Blanca several times in recent months. Host Stephanie Carpenter.

CARPENTER: And El Pasoans should be very offended by why this area of the country was chosen. And John, you've got the documents there. And basically, what those documents say is: Let's choose some place out in the desert that's mostly under-educated Hispanics, because they don't know much about it and they don't have a lot of political power and they, you know, are basically calling us a bunch of ignorant Hispanics in the Southwest who won't be able to fight it.

LOBET: The Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has come out against the Sierra Blanca site, calling it a civil rights issue. Some are predicting the issue could hurt Republican Governor George W. Bush, who's running for re-election and has been quite popular with Latinos. He heard about Sierra Blanca again on a recent visit to El Paso.

(Voices shouting: "Dump Bush! Dump Bush!")

REPORTER: It wasn't all endorsements for Governor Bush in El Paso. A group of protestors made their feelings known about the proposed low-level nuclear waste dump site in Sierra Blanca. The Governor...

LOBET: Across the border in Mexico, Sierra Blanca has received far more press than it has in the United States. City council members in Mexico have gone on hunger strikes. School children have marched in protest. And 30,000 Mexicans have signed petitions against the Sierra Blanca site.

(Mariachi music plays)

LOBET: At the Rio Grande Mall in Juarez, Mexico, most shoppers and business owners seemed in agreement about the merits of Sierra Blanca as a dump site.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I think it's harmful to the whole community of Juarez and El Paso. They knew all these things were dangerous. They should have thought about where they were going to put it in the first place.

MAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: If it's so safe, why don't they put it next to Washington? Then they could do a test.

MAN 2: [Speaks in Spanish}

TRANSLATOR: The whole thing is really bad. To come all the way down here to dump something that we don't produce in El Paso, or here in Mexico. The United States has plenty of places they can dump it up there. They've got more land than we do.

LOBET: Last summer 2 Texas judges recommended the license for the Sierra Blanca facility be denied. They say Texas planners failed to adequately map the fault under the site. The next move is up to the Texas National Resources Conservation Commission, a 3-member board appointed by the governor. The decision is expected near election time. Nuclear waste could start rolling into Sierra Blanca in the year 2000. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Sierra Blanca.



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