The Austin Chronicle


Radioactive Waste and Money Woo Sierra Blanca

By Robert Bryce, October 17, 1997, News

"We didn't generate one iota of that stuff and they want to dump it on us." -- Sierra Blanca business owner Gloria Addington
photograph by Robert Bryce

Overgrown weeds and "for sale" signs dominate both sides of the town's main street. Boarded up gas stations sit alongside abandoned houses with broken windows. The stucco on the walls of the State Theater -- the long-abandoned movie house -- has worn away, leaving the adobe bricks underneath open to the elements.

The courthouse, too, is crumbling. Large chunks of paint are falling off the gutters. The window frames haven't been painted in decades. The economic boom for Sierra Blanca came more than a century ago, in 1881, when the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail lines met. Since then, the town appears to have been in a steady decline. A small museum, open one day a week, holds the town's treasures.

No one will ever mistake Sierra Blanca for a thriving community. The sixth-poorest county in the state, Hudspeth County has a per capita income of $9,526, according to the state comptroller's office. The only economic development on the horizon for this town of 1,000 mostly Hispanic residents comes from the waste no one else in America wants. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved, by a 3-1 margin, the proposed compact that would allow Maine and Vermont to send radioactive waste to a site five miles west of Sierra Blanca.

During a mid-September visit to Sierra Blanca, the financial allure of radioactive waste was evident. Directly across from the courthouse sits the town's brand new library. Open since May of last year, it cost $275,000, all of which came from the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA). Tencha Sanchez, the librarian, gave a tour of the new facility, which holds 10,000 books. She showed a visitor the new computer room, the meeting room, and the magazine rack. "Now our kids have somewhere to go. It's something for them to do," she said. Sanchez said she is "neutral" on the radioactive waste dump. "There may be a down side," she said. "But I haven't seen it yet." Right behind the library sit two new tennis courts. Next to them, a park is under construction. Half of the money for the courts and park came from the TLLRWDA. And more money could be on the way. If the Senate and President Bill Clinton give final approval to the waste compact, Hudspeth County will get a $2.5 million payment from Maine and Vermont, and millions of additional dollars from the waste facility over the next 30 years.

James Peace, the county judge, has been one of the biggest supporters of the dump. "The opposition is just more vocal than the people in favor," said Peace, who points out that the county has new fire trucks, a refurbished high school football field, and a new municipal building in Fort Hancock -- all thanks to the TLLRWDA. "It's going to be as safe as anything else," says Peace. "Anything you do has a degree of danger."

But how much danger? And what will happen to Sierra Blanca if the waste does come in? Could it end up even more neglected than it is now? Nineteen Texas counties, two states in Mexico, and the city of Juarez have all passed resolutions against the proposed waste facility. And opponents say they have the signatures of 800 residents of Hudspeth County who oppose the project.

"We didn't generate one iota of that stuff, and they want to dump it on us," says Gloria Addington, who owns a grocery store in Sierra Blanca. Addington and her son Bill, who has been a leader in the fight against the waste site, say that despite the House vote, they will continue to fight. In a phone interview last week, Gloria Addington said, "It's disappointing. It's a hard road ahead. But it's just one battle; it's not the war."

Addington may be right, but Sierra Blanca already looks a bit like a war zone. And despite the financial promise offered by the radioactive waste business, it's doubtful that the town will ever be prosperous again.

Freeport Fined

FM Properties Operative Company (FMPO) has agreed to pay a $1,080 fine to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) for polluting Barton Creek in April. According to an Agreed Order issued by the TNRCC, FMPO has agreed to pay the fine for violating the Texas Water Code by "discharging water containing sediments and suspended solids" from its Barton Creek Development construction site into a Barton Creek tributary.

The sediment discharge from the Barton Creek site was discovered by local environmentalist Tim Jones, who videotaped much of the pollution event. Jones later called in city and TNRCC inspectors. A water quality sample by city inspectors found that the turbidity of the water coming off of the FMP site was 150 times higher than the water in Barton Creek. Freeport spokesman Bill Collier, a former employee of the local daily, refused to comment on the fine. "As you know, it's our policy not to comment to you," said Collier, who is now stationed in New Orleans. Readers may recall that in May, Collier downplayed the significance of the pollution, telling the local daily, "It's no surprise that we're three days from the city council elections and S.O.S. has chosen to slam FM Properties." The final disposition of the agreed order is expected to be decided by the TNRCC commissioners on Nov. 19.

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