Disposal of low-level nuclear waste at Texas site, USA

Sierra Blanca is a small town in Hudspeth County about 90 miles southeast of El Paso, TX and only 16 miles north of the Mexico border. There are about 900 residents, 60% of whom are mostly Hispanic. 30% of the roughly 430 housing units are vacant. 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 about $10,500 but the entire county’s is only $8,000 [1]. 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. The compact demands both Maine and Vermont 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 [1]. On October 22, 1998, Texas officials voted to deny the compact’s proposed site location following intense protests and organized opposition [2]. Sierra Blanca already hosts Merco Joint Venture, the town’s largest employer shipping over 400,000 tons of New York City sludge daily to a nearby ranch. Furthermore, Sierra Blanca sits on top of an aquifer and is 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. Additionally, the site proposal created international issues with the Mexican government who held that it violates the La Paz Agreement of 1983, signed by both Mexico and the United States. 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 [1]. The proposed site location in Sierra Blanca, recommended by Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority's (TLLRWDA), was originally chosen by the state agency because they expected little resistance given the high percentage of Hispanics and low income residents [1,2]. Similarly, many of the residents were Spanish speaking and did not have access to all of the information. Groups rallied together to form the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund (SBLDF) in 1992. In the following years, there were protests in Austin, TX (where Governor George W Bush was who was a major supporter of the proposed site in Hudspeth County) as well as within Sierra Blanca and a petition was signed against disposal of the waste [2]. Protests gained a lot of media attention and outraged Merco Joint Venture, the company TLLRWDA had contacted for the disposal of the waste. 1998 saw many protests, marches, and other forms of mobilization, especially on the side of Mexico. Following a shutdown of the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact by U.S. House of Representatives in 1997, Governor Bush made sure the compact was reintroduced and was successful in getting it passed later that same year. Several months before it was set to go before Congress, Mexico’s Green Ecologist Party announced a 24-day hunger strike which was spent on the bridge between Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. They carried letters of protest from Mexican Congressmen, which pointed to the violation of the La Paz Treaty [3]. In May 1998, Sierra Club activists met with a Vermont Representative trying to get him to denounce the bill and when that wasn’t successful, marched on Governor Bush’s home in protest of the bill with no response. In July 1998, 300 Mexicans and Americans blockaded the Juarez-El Paso bridge. Protests were also staged at a nearby nuclear plant by the Citizen’s Awareness Center and the Nuclear Information and Resource Center. Unfortunately, all of these protests were not enough to stop the passing of the bill on September 20, 1998 [4]. However, Texas officials denied the necessary licensing for the establishing of the proposed disposal site in Sierra Blanca as a result of the extreme social pressure that began by SBLDF and their partners. As a result, the project was officially shut down by the State of Texas on October 22, 1998 [2]. While the fight was won in this town, the compact is law and these states will seek an alternative site [1, 2].
Basic Data
NameDisposal of low-level nuclear waste at Texas site, USA
CountryUnited States of America
SiteSierra Blanca
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Nuclear
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Nuclear waste storage
Specific CommoditiesUranium
Project Details and Actors
Project Details
The site the TLLRWDA selected is a 16,000 acre ranch the state bought from private owners located just outside of Sierra Blanca[1].
See more...
Project Area (in hectares)6,474
Level of Investment (in USD)50,000,000
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population550- 3476 (2010 Demographic Profile U.S. Census Bureau)
Start Date1996
End Date1998
Company Names or State EnterprisesTexas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission (TLLRWDCC) from United States of America - Keep public records, manage storage and ensure law-abiding procedures
Merco Joint Venture, LLC from United States of America - Contracted for disposal
Relevant government actorsGeorge Bush, Governor of Texas, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ, formerly Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission), United States government, Texas state officials, Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA), government of Mexico,
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersSierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund, The Citizens’ Awareness Center and the Nuclear Information and Resource Center, Sierra Club, Greenpeace Mexico, Border Environmental Network, League of United Latin American Cities
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingInternational ejos
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseProject cancelled
Development of AlternativesWaste Control Specialists proposed a disposal site in Andrews County, Texas as a less controversial alternative to Sierra Blanca.
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.While the campaign successfully diverted the nuclear waste project, Texas continues to seek a disposal site and Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund has committed to fighting any site chosen in favor of more environmentally sound options.
Sources and Materials

Health and Safety Code Chapter 403 Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact
[click to view]

Public Law 99.240 Jan 1986 Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985
[click to view]

La Paz Agreement of 1983 between Mexico and the United States on Cooperation for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Area
[click to view]

Public Law 105.236 Sept 1998 Compact Consent Act [4]
[click to view]


Environmental Justice Case Study: The Struggle for Sierra Blanca, Texas Against A Low-Level Nuclear Waste Site [1]
[click to view]

EPA What is Border 2012: La Paz Agreement 1983 [3]
[click to view]


For Some, Texas Town Is Too Popular as Waste Disposal Site- New York Times Sept 2 1998
[click to view]

Mexico on Nuclear Dump: Not on Our Border- Christian Science Monitor June 18 1998
[click to view]

Texas dump might get other states' radioactive waste- Statesman.com May 2010. Regarding siting of low level radioactive nuclear waste dump in Andrews County, the alternative site proposed in 1998.
[click to view]

Nuclear Waste is Good For You, Texas Observer by Richard Boren January 1998
[click to view]

Texans defend Sierra Blanca community against nuclear waste disposal, 1996-1998
[click to view]

Media Links

Arrival of the march in Sierra Blanca, TX August 1998
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update27/10/2016