As we head into Super Tuesday in Texas, the Republican primary race is going to be more interesting than its Democratic counterpart, which is unsurprising in a state dominated by conservative politics. Specifically, for those interested in a close race, it means more to Republicans (where Ted Cruz is leading the field in polling, but by a relatively slim single-digit margin) than to Democrats (where Hillary Clinton is leading Bernie Sanders by 28 points). But that doesn’t mean that observers of the Democratic primary can write Texas off entirely—because one of the subjects of criticism for Sanders, whose main selling point to Democrats is that his progressive bonafides on many issues outstrip Clinton’s, comes straight out of West Texas.
Specifically, it’s the proposed Texas-Vermont-Maine nuclear waste dump, for which Sanders co-sponsored legislation, fought for in Congress, and voted for in the late nineties. Clinton supporters have been keen to point out that their candidate’s opponent hasn’t always maintained the progressive track record that Sanders’s political brand is built around, with Sierra Blanca, the small, low-income Texas town where the waste was set to be dumped, as chief among the arguments. And though it’s a matter of record that Sanders did do what he’s accused of in regards to the Sierra Blanca bill, it’s a more complex issue than “he voted to dump toxic waste on poor people.” (Sierra Blanca currently has a median household income of $22,768; Burlington, Vermont, which Sanders represented in Congress, averages almost three times that.)
Joe Nick Patoski wrote about the campaign against the project—which never came to fruition—for Texas Monthly in 1999, and he found an area sharply divided by the idea. (At one point, leading activist Bill Addington had his lumberyard burned to the ground, an event he attributed to arson from pro-project antagonists.) As Patoski wrote:
[I]f 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.
Sierra Blanca today isn’t a whole lot different from Sierra Blanca in the late nineties. Businesses are still closed—the nearest grocery store is in Van Horn, 33 miles away—and though they’ve added a Subway sandwich shop inside of a gas station, that’s now one of just three restaurants in the town. (The name Sierra Blanca is mostly known because a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint just outside of the town has a tendency to bust famous people. And even that claim to fame costs Sierra Blanca more money than it brings in, according to Sheriff Arvin West.)
There isn’t a lot of opportunity in Sierra Blanca, in other words, even nearly twenty years after the proposed waste dump would have brought some money into a community where the average household income is below the poverty line for a family of four. When desperate people are looking for a revenue stream, they’ll look into things like housing a toxic waste dump in their community—and defend that project passionately against opponents.
Still, it’d be disingenuous for Sanders’ supporters to claim that the candidate backed the bill because he was trying to provide economic opportunities to people in an impoverished community. A 1998 report from the Institute of Social Ecology puts Sanders in the same company as someone decidedly less beloved by progressives on the issue: George W. Bush, who as the Governor of Texas saw Sierra Blanca as an ideal part of Texas to house the waste.
Texas governor George W. Bush and independent congressman Bernie Sanders both see it as a sacrifice zone.
This past August, Vermont activists were visited by a delegation of long-time antinuclear activists from West Texas, three of whom spent ten days touring Vermont and meeting with both activists and public officials. They testified at the State House, and before the State Nuclear Advisory Panel. They participated in a five day walk for the abolition of nuclear weapons, met with Rep. Sanders, one of the compact’s leading proponents, and spent a few days at an antinuclear activist camp in southern Vermont. On August 22, they were joined by two Sierra Blanca residents, who spoke at a large antinuclear rally in the southern Vermont town of Brattleboro.
Sanders was certainly aware of the opposition to the project from those in the area, in other words. It’s likely he heard from proponents of the project as well, but it’s fair to characterize Sanders’ support for the project as driven largely by a desire to see a Vermont problem resolved far from his own backyard.
The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission ruled against issuing a permit for the waste dump in 1998, but the issue hasn’t died for Sanders. The candidate, who’s faced little in the way of opposition research in his political career, hasn’t yet figured out a way to talk about Sierra Blanca that squares it with his primary message. As the Texas Tribune reported over the weekend, senior Sanders advisor Tad Devine addressed the matter on CNN without actually talking about the issue:
“The only dump that’s going on here is an oppo dump, okay, right before the primary,” Devine responded, laughing about the Clinton campaign’s efforts to turn voters’ heads just before the primaries. “Bernie Sanders has a very strong record of protecting people, standing up for people. The way he stands up for them is taking on powerful institutions and not taking money from them.”
That doesn’t address the specific concerns here, but it seems to be good enough for Bill Addington, who told the Tribune that, as a Sanders supporter, he’s moved past the issue. “Bernie made a big mistake, but this country has a lot bigger problems than what happened 20 years ago,” Addington explained to the website. “Not that that gives him a free pass, not that it makes him right, but we’ve moved on.”
All of this reflects a complicated situation. Sanders did fight for the ability to dump the toxic waste generated by people from Vermont in a poor, largely Hispanic community on the border—and some of the people in that community fought to get that toxic waste dumped in their area, because the world is so complicated that sometimes poor people lobby to take on other people’s toxic garbage if they’ll get paid for it.
What all of that adds up to is ultimately subject to interpretation, but the simplistic frames being proposed through the lenses of each candidate—that he either wanted to dump toxic sludge on poor people or that he’s still a champion of the downtrodden because the project never came to fruition—doesn’t serve much purpose. That, though, is just how primary campaigns tend to work.