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Nuclear Waste Dump Planned on U.S. - Mexican Border

by Danielle Knight

One of poorest regions in U.S.
(IPS) SIERRA BLANCA -- U.S. law makers are pushing ahead with plans to allow construction of a low-level nuclear waste dump on the border with Mexico, despite opposition from the local community, environmentalists and Mexican officials.

The proposed Sierra Blanca dump is located at the western end of the state of Texas in one of the most economically poor regions in the country, where about two-thirds of the residents are of Latin American (mainly Mexican) origin.

"We were chosen because it is the path of least political resistance," Bill Addington, a local property owner, rancher and businessman, told IPS. "It is a classic case of environmental injustice."

Classic example of "environmental racism"
Just 30 kilometers from the Mexico border, environmentalists warn that the proposed dump site is prone to earthquakes and situated over a water aquifer -- a scarce resource in this dry climate of the Chihuahuan desert.

Many Mexican congressional members say that the dump violates the 1983 La Paz Agreement between the Mexico and the United States, which prohibits the construction of such projects within 100 kilometers from the neighboring country's border. The Mexican Congress's Permanent Commission voted unanimously against the proposed dump earlier this year.

In mid-June, a delegation of 14 Mexican congress members opposing the dump tried unsuccessfully to visit the Governor of Texas, George W. Bush, son of the former U.S. President.

"We cannot permit the United States to build up garbage dumps on our border," says Norberto Corella, a Mexican senator of Baja California. "Is there any sense in entering any international agreements if they are going to be violated? We will go to what means required in order to stop this project."

Mexican officials from the delegation say they will probably fight the proposed deal within the context of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or an international court such as the Organization of American States or the United Nations.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission is expected to decide as early as July on an operating license for the proposed project. But most say approval will be a formality because the commissioners and governor who must okay the project are largely in favor of it.

Besides storing radioactive waste from nuclear reactors across Texas, the dump site may also take nuclear waste from far away northeastern states. Federal law makers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are currently debating the approval of an interstate compact that would permit the Sierra Blanca dump to receive nuclear waste from Maine and Vermont.

Officials in the two states argue that storing the waste in Sierra Blanca will be cheaper and safer. Without conducting an environmental impact assessment, Governor Bush has agreed, saying that the agreement will bring millions of dollars to Sierra Blanca and the state.

Bush also has consistently maintained that the Texas- Maine- Vermont compact is the only way protect Texas from being forced to take waste from all over the country.

But, Diane D'Arrigo, an activist with the Washington-based Nuclear Information Resource Service argues, "Nobody can force you to build a dump."

"It's crystal clear what money can buy and money is one thing Sierra Blancans do not have," she says. "It can buy hundreds of hours of expensive professional lobbying time and clout."

While Bush and others say the compact will bring millions of dollars to the poor town of only 700 people, other politicians say it is a classic example of "environmental racism."

"The dump is a part of a national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution" in communities without political clout or financial resources, says Paul Wellstone, a U.S. senator of Minnesota.

The nuclear power industry says that low-level radioactive waste, like the kind that may be stored in Sierra Blanca, is mostly just gloves and boots used in medical facilities. Yet, Addington and D'Arrigo charge that all nuclear power-plant waste except spent fuel rods is considered low-level.

Other critics, including the Mexican officials, allege that every other radioactive waste site in the United States has leaked.

"Who's going to guarantee 1,000 years from now there is not going to be a leak," asks Hector Murguia, a Mexican Senator from Ciudad Juarez. "The border does not distinguish between the water in the wells between the United States and Mexico."

The waste industry is not new to Sierra Blanca. Since 1992, three trainloads a week of New York City sewage sludge have been dumped on a 90,000 acre ranch, just outside of town.

Based on the average composition of the sludge using figures provided by the New York Department of Environmental Quality, Addington has calculated that over one year, Merco Joint Venture Company, the waste corporation under contract with New York State, deposits thousands of pounds of arsenic, copper and lead on this tract of land.

"Because of the Merco dump, property values in the area have dropped and people are having difficulty selling their land," says Addington.

"We already have the world's largest sludge dump, now this nuclear dump threatens us and if it goes in other radioactive processing facilities could also be put in our small town."

Even if plans for the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear dump are somehow defeated, several other proposed nuclear waste dumps in the United States are also close to the border -- one in California and one in New Mexico.

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Albion Monitor July 1, 1998 (

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