Nuclear waste stored only seventy miles away? Officials of Presidio County say: Not in our back yard.
WHEN THE TEXAS NATURAL Resources Conservation Commission concludes its hearings in January 1998 on the question of whether a state-owned radioactive waste dump should be located five miles south of the Hudspeth County town of Sierra Blanca, a handful of organizations and individuals will line up to testify against the project. Most of the objections will be predictable: the possibility of groundwater contamination, the region’s history of earthquakes, and the supposed anti—West Texas bent of the Legislature, which selected the site eighty miles east of El Paso without taking the pulse of voters.
But of all the interested parties, none is taking as creative an approach as the officials of neighboring Presidio County. The basis for their opposition is financial: They argue that opening a nuclear dump seventy miles from the county line would undermine their ability to boost one of the state’s worst economies. “We’re downstream, downwind, downcurrent, and downtrodden,” says county judge Jake Brisbin, Jr. “Whether or not the nuke dump is safe, its proximity is bad for us. We’re finally getting a reputation as the last wild place left in Texas: the New Old West. Do we want to take a chance with something like this?”
Three times the size of the state of Rhode Island, Presidio County encompasses 3,855 square miles of extreme basin and range and Chihuahuan desert, including the border town of Presidio and a handful of smaller settlements along the river and the main highways. The Rio Grande floodplain includes the oldest continuously cultivated farmland on the continent. Back in 1955, director George Stevens immortalized the area’s majesty by filming the epic movie Giant in and around the county seat of Marfa, and more than forty years later a steady stream of tourists comes looking for the long-gone facade of Rock Hudson’s Reata ranch house. They also come for the art. Two decades ago, sculptor Donald Judd began buying property in Presidio County—including old Fort Russell, a former German prisoner of war camp, and 40,000 acres of ranchland—and turning it into a showcase for his work and that of artists like Dan Flavin and Claes Oldenburg. By the time of his death three years ago, Judd had transformed Marfa into Art Town, attracting more than 10,000 visitors every year.
And, of course, people come to Presidio County to camp out and chill out, for Marfa is the western gateway to more than a million acres of parkland, including the 287,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park, the 40,000-acre Mesquite Ranch (recently deeded to the state), and the 801,000-acre Big Bend National Park in adjacent Brewster County. “More and more Europeans are coming here to see the land because it’s virtually untouched,” says Maiya Keck, an administrative assistant of the Judd estate. “Their jaws drop when they see the landscape.” Indeed, late last year rock star Mick Jagger roughed it on Cibolo Creek Ranch in Shafter with his wife, Mesquite native Jerry Hall, and their children, and homemaking guru Martha Stewart staged a big barbecue at Judd’s Chinati Foundation arena.
Tourism’s income-generating potential isn’t the only reason Brisbin and county attorney Teresa Todd requested $3,500 from Presidio County’s meager annual budget of $1 million to bring in expert witnesses to the nuke dump hearings. There’s also the issue of attracting start-up companies and creating jobs—a real concern in a county with a 38 percent unemployment rate. In the past year a 150-acre hydroponic tomato greenhouse complex has set up shop on the Marfa—Fort Davis highway, and an ostrich feather—processing plant has opened south of Marfa; county officials fear the nuke dump will put an end to the miniboom. “We’re trying to grow responsibly, and we’re afraid the kind of businesses we want won’t come here now,” says Todd, a former Austinite with a background in environmental law.
No one, not even Brisbin and Todd, disputes the benefits to be reaped by Hudspeth County, whose biggest industry in recent years has been disposing of other people’s waste. Since 1992 a 128,000-acre ranch owned by the New York City—based Merco Joint Venture has been the final destination for sludge processed from sewage from New York; that project has been pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Hudspeth County’s economy each year. Estimates put the value of the nuke dump—which would be home to waste from power plants in Vermont and Maine, plus the Comanche Peak and South Texas Project plants near Fort Worth and Houston, respectively—at more than $1 million annually.
Nor does anyone dispute that the nuke dump is almost certainly a done deal. When Ann Richards was governor, she championed Sierra Blanca as the ideal place to safely store nuclear waste for 10,000 years, and George W. Bush has endorsed the project as well. The potential political volatility of the dump’s location less than twenty miles from Mexico has been neutralized by the existence of the Carbon I and II coal-powered electric plants across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, the greatest single source of air pollution in the region: The speculation is that if Mexico doesn’t complain about the nuclear waste in Sierra Blanca, the United States will ignore the haze wafting across the border. Moreover, there is considerable pressure to get the site up and running, since the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority has spent $10 million in the past fourteen years trying to open a dump and the Sierra Blanca site is the fourth location proposed by the authority.
Still, opponents of the nuke dump aren’t giving up the fight—and they won’t go away quietly. “I was real pessimistic, but we must have some shot because lawyers for the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority asked me if it would make a difference if the economic benefits in Sierra Blanca were to be spread around to include this county.” Brisbin said no.
“Hudspeth County says it’s none of our business, but they’re getting the blood money,” growls Robert Halpern, an Alpine native who publishes and edits the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa and The International in Presidio. “It’s not just the nuke dump; it’s everything else. We’re fighting low-altitude flights by German combat pilots, coal plants in Mexico, sludge—everybody wants to put their trash on our doorstep. We’re tired of being the dumping ground of Texas. At one time we were the cultural and commercial center of the Trans-Pecos, then we bottomed out in the eighties. But now more visitors than ever are coming. A nuclear dump in Sierra Blanca is going to have a chilling effect on all that.”
Halpern pulls a letter from his desk. “It’s from a Harvard MBA who wants to be a reporter in Marfa,” he says. “And my intern at the paper this summer came from the New Yorker. If this part of Texas becomes famous for its waste, I don’t think I’m going to be hearing from people like that.”