Environmental Justice Case Study: The Struggle for Sierra Blanca, Texas Against A Low-Level Nuclear Waste Site

Table of Contents

Above image taken from Tiger Mapping Service, 1997.

The Problem

In 1994, the states of Texas, Maine, and Vermont entered a compact allowing the disposal of low-level nuclear waste at a proposed Texas site. This creates the tenth such compact in the United States since 1980, when a Federal law was passed requiring states take responsibility for their low-level nuclear waste, urging cooperation. This compact demands both Maine and Vermont to pay Texas $25 million to build a disposal facility. Prior to becoming law, the compact first needed to gain Congressional approval. Following its approval on September 20, 1998, the compact then required the state of Texas to license the project before moving forward. October 22, 1998, Texas officials voted to deny the compact's proposed site located just outside of Sierra Blanca.

Sierra Blanca, a small West Texas town over two-thirds Hispanic, already hosts Merco Joint Venture. This company is the town's largest employer shipping over 400,000 tons of New York City sludge daily to a nearby ranch. Furthermore, Sierra Blanca is located only sixteen miles from the Mexico border, on top of an aquifer, and in an active Earthquake area. Residents, environmentalists, and community groups have made numerous cries of "environmental racism", even filing a suit under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The groups have faced an uphill battle defending the town from becoming a nuclear disposal site. However, while the fight was won in Sierra Blanca, the compact is law and these states will seek an alternative site.

Back to Table of Contents


The United States has always lacked disposal sites for nuclear waste. Members of the nuclear industry feel it is extremely vital for their survival to find sites for waste disposal. To help alleviate the problem, the Federal government has classified waste as either low-level or high-level. Low-level includes radioactive waste from medical facilities and academic institutions. However, "low-level waste" is a deceiving term because according to the nuclear industry about 85% of the waste also comes from nuclear facilities. The waste may encompass reactor core control rods, resins, sludges, and piping that may include hazardous elements such as plutonium, iodine-129, nicle-59, and strontium-90. These radioactive isotopes would be hazardous for thousands, even millions of years.

Currently there are only two sites for low-level nuclear waste, Richland, Washington and Barnwell, South Carolina. The Texas, Maine, and Vermont compact would have brought Sierra Blanca online as the nation's third such disposal site. However, the compact in its third attempt at passage in Congress, would not be permanently limited to those three states. Not only can future states be added to the compact, but "a Governor-appointed commission can contract with any generator, anywhere, anytime, to take waste from non-party states, without Congressional or state legislature approval."

Even following Congress' passage of the compact, Texas still needed to license a site to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority's (TLLRWDA). July 7, 1998, two administrative law judges in Austin ruled that the application for a license should be rejected. To support their decision, they stated that the agency had not performed an adequate geological survey of the site nor a proper assessment of the proposed dump's socio-economic impact. Regardless of the decision, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) has the final say concerning a license. They can ignore the judges' ruling and authorize a license at any time.

In 1991, a state law was passed requiring a low-level disposal site be located within a 400-square-mile "box" of land in West Texas' Hudspeth County. Texas' officials hoped this law would guarantee that their fourth site proposal would succeed. The site the TLLRWDA selected is a 16,000 acre ranch the state bought from private owners located just outside of Sierra Blanca. Yet, this law may merely be the outcome of a study conducted by the TLLRWDA in 1984. The state agency, responsible for finding a dump site, recommended that nuclear waste disposal should target special populations, such as "‘Hispanics, particularly those with little formal education and low incomes.'" Even further, the study advised the nuclear industry to limit "‘increasing the level of knowledge'" of those same citizens in fear they may fight the dump site.

The Sierra Blanca proposal has created a public relations nightmare with the Mexican government who believe it violates the La Paz Agreement of 1983 signed by both Mexico and the United States. Article Two of this agreement states that both sides must work to "prevent, reduce, and eliminate any contaminating sources along the border zone extending sixty-four miles on either side of the border." Sierra Blanca is only sixteen miles from the Mexican border.

The site has received strong support from U.S. politicians, including Gov. George Bush Jr. (R-TX). While former governor Ann Richards conceived the Sierra Blanca site, Gov. Bush perhaps has been the single greatest entity "lobbying hard in Congress to pass the compact with no restricting amendments." His support of the disposal site, coupled with financing from the nuclear industry, has made it difficult for community groups to respond, being outspent 1000-1. Yet, the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund is one grassroots group that has led the fight to combat the site. They have helped rally communities together to voice their opposing opinions.

Back to Table of Contents

Key Actors

Governor George Bush Jr. (R-TX)

Since becoming governor in 1994, he has been one of the disposal site's strongest backers. It appears that while Bush has been eyeing the Oval Office, he has been courting the nuclear industry to finance his campaign in 2000. He has received many out-of-state contributions from companies that own or operate nuclear power plants including Duke Power, Southern Company Services, and Entergy Corporation. One in-state group who owns and operates a nuclear power plant, Texas Utilities, has even contributed $40,000 to Bush during his first term.

Waste Control Specialists

This company has proposed a disposal site in Andrews County, Texas as a less controversial alternative to Sierra Blanca. Following TNRCC's denial to license the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority they will undoubtedly increase their lobbying to obtain a license, despite Texas state law which prohibits private companies from disposing radioactive waste. This company coincidentally is owned by Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire who is also one of Gov. Bush's strongest supporters and closest friends.

Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA)

In 1991, the state of Texas authorized this six-person agency to find a suitable area to dispose of low-level radioactive waste in Hudspeth County. If denied a license by the TNRCC they stand to lose a $50 million investment from the states of Maine and Vermont.

Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC)

The commission, comprised of three Bush appointed officials, is ultimately responsible for making a decision on whether or not to license the TLLRWDA to build a facility.

Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN)

Sen. Wellstone has been the only Congressmen to truly vocalize his opposition to the dump, calling it a part of a "national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution." For three years, he single-handedly blocked Congress from passing the compact. While maintaining "no agenda or ulterior motives of his own", he has been resolute about calling this "…an issue of environmental justice."

The Government of Mexico

The proposed dump has been a strain on U.S.-Mexico relations with many Mexican officials adamantly opposed. Citing the La Paz Agreement of 1983, Mexico has also cried "environmental racism". Many government officials and communities pressured Congress and Texas to deny the TLLRWDA a license.

The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund (SBLDF)

Bill Addington, a concerned resident from Sierra Blanca, worked with the Nuclear Responsibility Network to form the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund in 1994. The group was formed to tackle the "legal aspect of activism." Yet, SBLDF has evolved and is now coordinating a statewide, grassroots coalition that includes conservative property rights groups, ranchers, members of the tourist industry, community groups, and environmentalists.

Back to Table of Contents


Sierra Blanca is a rural, West Texas town located ninety miles southeast of El Paso in Hudspeth County. At one time it was a railroad and ranching center, but has since become a small stretch of commercial buildings along a road feeding two Interstate 10 exits. Approximately 900 people live in Sierra Blanca, over 60% are people of color, most of whom are Hispanic. Hudspeth County is roughly two thirds Hispanic. Regarding housing, Sierra Blanca has approximately 428 units, 30% of which are vacant. Nearly 80% of those unoccupied homes have been that way for at least six months. Further, 36% of the homes are valued less than $15,000 while only 10% are valued above $40,000. Simply stated, Sierra Blanca is an extremely poor town where almost a third of the households live below the poverty level of $15,000. The town's per capita income is approximately $10,500, but the entire county's is only $8,000.

Back to Table of Contents

Strategies Used

Since their founding, the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund has worked tirelessly to pressure the state of Texas to "make correct legal decisions." They have filed a complaint alleging the proposed dump site violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Only 1% of Maine and Vermont populations and 37% of Texas' are people of color, yet Hudspeth County is 67% Hispanic. There has also been no Spanish translation of either the TNRCC's Environmental Assessment, the License Application, or the many communications from the State Office of Hearings Examiners even though it is the first language of many potential affected parties. These facts back SBLDF's belief that both state and federal officials have deliberately targeted a minority population in an effort to minimize political opposition to the site. The group has also charged "environmental racism" by citing the U.S.-Mexico cosigned La Paz Agreement of 1983.

The success of SBLDF arguing that the proposal violates the La Paz Agreement has been garnering support from Mexico. The Permanent Commission of the Mexican Congress (a body of representatives and senators that convenes while Congress is not in session) passed a resolution that objects to the proposed site, asking it be relocated outside the border zone. The resolution even received support from all five of Mexico's major political parties including the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the Party of Democratic Revolution, the National Action Party, the Green Party, and the Workers Party. Many Mexican Congressmen, including Sen. Luis H. Alvarez, president of the Senate Commission on the Environment and Natural Resources, have voiced their distaste by contacting Washington DC. Even President Ernesto Zedillo eventually spoke out in opposition to the dump and contacted Gov. Bush urging him to condemn the proposal. As of August 15, 1998, Mexico passed seven resolutions on the local, state, and national levels opposing the proposal. Only Mexico's Environmental Ministry believes the proposal does not violate the La Paz Agreement.

Unfortunately the SBLDF has been unable to acquire neither the backing from most national, mainstream environmental groups nor funding from major foundations. Erin Rogers, Executive Director for the SBLDF, believes "National groups have difficulty getting involved with environmental justice issues and do not make it a priority." Only a few major groups have supported their cause, most of which are not mainstream. The Nuclear Information Resources Service has been the only truly vocal national group. Greenpeace Mexico has helped pressure the Mexican government, while local Sierra Club chapters in Texas, the Border Environmental Network, and League of United Latin American Cities have worked with SBLDF.

Those aforementioned groups and many smaller interests have been vital in helping SBLDF. Together they have obtained 42 resolutions opposing the proposal on the local, state, and national levels in Mexico and the U.S. They have coordinated public meetings, volunteer efforts, and flyerings to educate citizens. The results have included protests and marches, sometimes spanning a whole weekend and featuring over 400 Mexican children, fasts by Mexican Congressmen, and candlelight vigils all of which usually lead to the steps of the Governor's mansion in Austin. The SBLDF has even garnered support from Maine and Vermont where local Sierra Club Chapters have led marches. The coalition's outreach has also featured newspaper editorials, radio interviews, and their own website.

Back to Table of Contents


On September 20, 1998 H.R. 629 and S. 270, the Texas Radioactive Waste Disposal Bill became Public Law 105-236. This third attempt successfully authorized the Texas-Maine-Vermont tri-state compact. However, despite Federal and state support, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission voted 3-0 on October 20, 1998 to deny the TLLRWDA a license to build a disposal facility outside Sierra Blanca. They rejected the application, citing concerns regarding the socioeconomic impact and safety. Others believe that pressure from Mexico and the SBLDF, along with Gov. Bush's last minute decision to oppose the vote two weeks prior to his reelection helped influence the decision.

Back to Table of Contents


Even though the Sierra Blanca proposal has been denied the struggle is not over. The state of Texas will continue to seek a disposal site, turning towards Andrews County. The Andrews County site may be a more difficult fight because it is located outside of the border zone and will not violate the La Paz Agreement. Officials in the county seeking a larger tax base have expressed interest in becoming home to the site. Furthermore, Waste Control Specialists, interested in building the facility, is an extremely wealthy company whose owner is close to Gov. Bush. For these reasons, SBLDF must maintain pressure on state officials by using the courts and grassroots activism to prevent the state from achieving its goal.

Fortunately, SBLDF has accepted the responsibility of fighting any attempts to license a disposal site in the state. If they succeed in achieving their goal of forcing Texas to promote energy conservation and "manage" and not "dump their waste at the site of generation it will require more national attention. The coalition must persist in seeking support, expertise, and finances from national environmental groups and foundations. SBLDF needs Mexico's continued opposition to any site. They must maintain their ties to Greenpeace, Nuclear Information Resources Service, Sierra Club chapters, and local community groups, while also expanding their coalition to include community members from Andrews County. If they follow these strategies, the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund will be able to build on its past achievements and hopefully thwart any further attempts to build a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility.

Back to Table of Contents

Contact Person/Information Sources

For more information regarding this case, or if you would like to remain updated, participate, or become involved in this environmental struggle, you can contact:

Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund

Austin Office
517 Navasota
Austin, TX 78702

El Paso Office
1115 Montana
El Paso, TX 79902

Sierra Blanca Office
PO Box 218
Sierra Blanca, TX 79851


Betancourt, Alberto. "Border Skirmish." The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. May/June 1998. Pages 14-16.

Blakeslee, Nate. "George Bush's Radioactive Plot." The Nation. March 9, 1998. Pages 18-21.

__________. "New England's Pay Toilet." The Progressive. April 14, 1998. Page 14.

Hershey, Olive. "Should a Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility be Built in Texas?; Health, Safety Risks Great, Opposition is Vigorous." The Houston Chronicle. September 20, 1998. Outlook, page 4.

Loftis, Randy Lee. "Panel Rejects Nuclear Dump in W. Texas; Earthquake Risk, Possible Harm to Residences Cited." The Dallas Morning News. October 23, 1998. Page A1.

Lyman, Rick. "For Some, Texas Town Is Too Popular as Waste Disposal Site." The New York Times. September 2, 1998. Section A 18

Rogers, Erin. Personal Communication. December 4, 1998.

"Texas Agency Denies Permit for Waste Site." The New York Times. October 23, 1998. Section A 18.

"The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund." World Wide Web. http://www.compassionate.org/sbldf.

"The U.S. Census Bureau." World Wide Web. http://www.census.gov.

"Thomas." World Wide Web. http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas2.htmls.

Back to Table of Contents