Clean Living

Meet three West Texas activists who are keeping their land out of the dumps.

July 1999By Comments

THE SIGN POSTED ON A FENCE OUTSIDE THE GUERRA and Company General Merchandise store in Sierra Blanca serves notice. “Attention: Any Company Intending to Dump Hazardous or Toxic Waste on Our Home Hudspeth County: We Will Not Allow You to Use Us as a Dumpsite. Our Health, Children, Water, and Land Are Most Precious to Us.” The message leaves the impression that a ruling by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission last October, rejecting a permit to open a nuclear-waste dump in Sierra Blanca, never really happened. Indeed, even in the aftermath of tilting against radioactive windmills and turning back what many said was a “done deal,” a visit with three activists involved in the decade-long battle shows that the fight to protect West Texas’ natural resources is far from over.

Take Bill Addington, the Sierra Blanca native who has been in the trenches from the beginning. He’s back behind the meat counter at Guerra’s, which has been at its current location since 1928, but the counter is empty and half the shelves are bare. From here, Addington runs the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, which is now fighting against a sludge ranch north of town, operated by Merco Joint Venture, as well as a proposed nuclear-waste facility 230 miles away in Andrews, which the Legislature failed to authorize this session but may take up again in 2001. As the anti-dump movement’s main spokesperson, the 42-year-old Addington has paid dearly for the privilege. His wife left him and took their son because, she said, she saw him more on television than at home. He says that he and his mother, Gloria, spent more than $250,000 on the fight, money that could have helped cover the $37,500 they owe the county in back property taxes. And the lumberyard the Addingtons owned burned five years ago—the result of arson. When Addington implied that pro-dump forces might have been behind the fire, he became one of the defendants in a $60 million defamation suit filed by Merco, only to be dropped from the suit days before the trial began.

But if Addington deserves credit for leading the charge against the dump, he also chased away what some people thought would be an economic windfall. Many movers and shakers in this town of 650 dislike him passionately, namely, anyone with a stake in bringing in business, regardless of what kind. Today Sierra Blanca’s economy remains in tatters. Half the service stations and restaurants are abandoned or closed. The new library, the new fire station, the new school bus, the park, the tennis courts, the lights at the football field—all paid for with funds contributed by the sludge operators or the nuclear authority—now face a lack of money for maintenance and upkeep. “I’m a thorn in the side of some business leaders,” Addington says, “but I don’t care. It was only a small group of people that were for this thing, but they’re in positions of power.”

Despite all of this, Addington isn’t done fighting, not with all the projects aimed at transforming West Texas into Waste Texas. There’s the sludge ranch, which is the largest in the world. “The sludge isn’t allowed to be dumped in New York State, where it comes from,” he says. “Why? Because it contains copper and lead. Yet it was approved by the State of Texas in twenty-one days, without a public hearing.” There’s the possible opening of a privately operated nuclear-waste dump in Andrews, which lies on the edge of the Ogallala Aquifer. Just across the state line, in New Mexico, a napalm incinerator that would generate electricity might be relocated from Louisiana. And then there’s El Paso’s ongoing purchases of ranches in Far West Texas to exploit their water rights, which threatens the already dwindling supply of irrigation water for farms along the Rio Grande, including Addington’s six-thousand-acre spread.

His activism has spawned a speaking career of sorts, though Gloria complains that he doesn’t charge for his services. “The University of North Texas was prepared to offer him a three-thousand-dollar honorarium,” she says, “and he said he’d go for expenses.” A Hollywood producer wants to make a movie of his quest, which prompted Addington to hire an agent, but he’s still living hand-to-mouth and driving a 1981 Datsun pickup. “My obsession doesn’t make for a healthy lifestyle,” he admits, “but my worst nightmare is having my son’s generation say we did nothing. I couldn’t turn it off if I wanted. There are three thousand people living in a county the size of Connecticut. We have little representation. Politicos can be bought off for pocket change around here.”

In marked contrast to Addington’s situation are the accolades bestowed on Gary Oliver and Susan Curry. Oliver, a cartoonist from Marfa, was recognized as Citizen of the Year by his chamber of commerce for consistently hammering the dumping issue in political cartoons in the Big Bend Sentinel, the Odessa American, and the El Paso Times.

Surrounded by cats in the living room of the adobe home he is renovating, Oliver, who is legally blind, works out the notes of a song he has written called the “Atomic Polka” (to the tune of the “Pennsylvania Polka”) on a concertina, singing in a nasal drawl, “The regulators told us / there’s nothing to fear / but they’re already running.” Packing for a bus trip to Vermont to participate in a peace march, Oliver wonders aloud if the Sentinel will publish his latest cartoon, which takes a jab at the light pollution two new businesses have created.

A University of Texas graduate and a resident of Marfa for the past seventeen years, the 52-year-old Oliver says he knew next to nothing about nuclear power before he drew a cartoon in 1983 about plans for a dump in Dell City. He paid closer attention when Fort Hancock was proposed as a suitable site four years later. “I became known locally as the one-issue cartoonist,” he says, and he never stopped voicing his opposition, especially after all the “done deal” talk of the Sierra Blanca dump. “It’s only a done deal if you lie down and let it be.” But Oliver is quick to argue that the dump was not just a regional issue. “The nuclear industry has been trying unsuccessfully for twenty-five years to open a new dump because the existing ones have all leaked. If it’s so safe, it makes more sense to store it where it’s generated.” Like Addington, he too is opposed to a privately run dump in Andrews as well as to the project in New Mexico. But his recognition from the Marfa chamber for “reminding us to always have hope,” as the award reads, is proof, he says, “that the times really are a-changing.”

Thirty miles east in Alpine, Curry was also recognized by her local chamber of commerce as Citizen of the Year for her role in opposing the dump, but that is just one aspect of her activism, which includes belonging to the Pilot Club community leadership organization, volunteering for Meals on Wheels, and sitting on the boards of directors of the local Sierra Club, the Sunshine House Senior Center, and the Chinati Hot Springs non-profit corporation. Curry’s role in the battle initially focused on handling paperwork during the hearings, but that task became too overwhelming. “I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone,” she says, “but I wouldn’t want that right taken from anyone either.”

Her role eventually evolved into that of a peacekeeping liaison, lobbying local Republicans who had access to Governor George W. Bush and even soliciting support from the Trans-Pecos Heritage Association, a conservative property-rights group. “I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Can you believe it? Margaret Mead was right.’ A small group of concerned, committed citizens really can change the world,” she says. Curry’s interest in the nuclear issue dates back to the sixties, when she was in high school in Colorado: “I really liked reading about Albert Einstein and knew nuclear power was a dangerous thing, growing up between Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal [where nuclear weapons and waste are stored].” She and her husband, Tom, moved from Austin to Alpine six years ago, and she attended her first dump hearing on her forty-seventh birthday, August 6, 1996. After she signed on in the fight, her dander was raised when a lawyer for the Low Level Radioactive Waste Authority condescendingly told her, “Susan, I know you don’t have a scientific mind.” “When I got involved in this, I was going to be a hippie potter and manage my husband’s business,” Curry says. “It’s been challenging to the marriage. While I took over activism full-time, he had to take over my part of the business.”

The experience has energized her, though she is admittedly a bit more cautious about what to dive into next. “Would I do it again? I would do it differently and delegate a lot more,” she says. “All of us had burnout, but it was definitely worth the struggle. Now I’m thinking of getting more involved in environmental issues, as well as in community planning.” Still, nukes aren’t about to vanish from her radar. “This whole nuclear issue is only fifty-four years old. We still don’t know anything about its effects, and yet we have people saying it’s okay. The people of West Texas looked at the evidence and thought for themselves. I was glad to be a spokesperson, but I had the validation of people like a Hispanic lady who handed me her change at the grocery and said, ‘Habla por mi.’ ‘Speak for me.’ What I’ve learned is that you can’t win if you don’t try.”

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