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 .
In 1994, the states of Texas, Maine and Vermont entered a contract allowing the disposal of low-level nuclear waste at a proposed Texas site. The contract demands both Maine and Vermont pay Texas $25 million to build a disposal facility. Prior to becoming law, the contract 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 . On October 22, 1998, Texas officials voted to deny the compact’s proposed site location following intense protests and organized opposition . 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 . 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 . 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 contract 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 .
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 . 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 . While the fight was won in this town, the contract is law and these states will seek an alternative site [1, 2].
The victory was short-lived, however. In 2008, well-known activist Josefina Reyes Salazar, who protested against femicides and the Sierra Blanca radioactive waste site, was murdered in retaliation to her opposition of the area's militarization in the aftermath of the Sierra Blanca conflict. Five other family members and fellow activists were eventually also kidnapped and/or murdered. The killings were covered up as a narcotics scandal, with the police claiming that the family was involved in drug cartels .