Trench Warfare

There's a hole carved out of the earth 32 feet deep, 210 feet wide, and 400 feet long near the Texas-Mexico border.

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-hewn 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's 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 during which 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. Of the four locations the Authority has considered, three have been in Hudspeth County. When the Authority did 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 Acuna, 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's low-level waste is questionable. The head of the Authority, Rick Jacobi, is a former employee of Houston Lighting & Power who owns about $60,000 worth of stock in HL&P's parent company, Houston Industries. 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. A review of the Authority's data by Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a consulting group hired by dump opponents, suggests gross underestimations of the potential contamination of the water table below the site, as well as the potential exposure to nearby humans.

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