The Woman Who Slew Goliath

For Erin Rogers, the Austin woman who powered the campaign that saved a tiny West Texas town from the nuclear waste industry, it all began with Gipperphobia. “In high school I got freaked out by nuclear war,” she says, “and had all these nightmares about Ronald Reagan killing us all.”

Those nightmares (and, she concedes, a teenage infatuation) eventually steered her to the Stop Nuclear War club at Bellaire High School in Houston. Six years later a different sort of horrible vision – one of limousine liberals, shilling for the nuclear industry – led Rogers to join the fight against the construction of a radioactive waste dump in Sierra Blanca. From 1994 until last fall Rogers dedicated herself to a cause that often seemed hopeless, and when she became executive director of the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund in May of last year, it still appeared that the state would license the dump. But last October, in a rare, sweet triumph for the forces of good, the license was denied, and the group Rogers directed was hailed as one of the most effective political advocacy groups in the country.

In 1994 Rogers read an article in the Austin Chronicle that made her blood boil. The article reported that Sarah Weddington, the attorney who won the Roe v. Wade case, was lobbying the Texas Legislature on behalf of the Maine-Yankee nuclear power plant. With the support of then-governor Ann Richards, she was working to site the plant’s waste dump in Sierra Blanca, a tiny town in the Chihuahan desert. At the time Rogers was twenty-four, a graduate of U.T.-Austin’s Plan II (an honors liberal arts program), and a staff member of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, an Austin-based group founded by feminist philanthropist Genevieve Vaughn. Rogers’ research there involved investigating correlations between radiation exposure and breast cancer, and through that work she’d met Sierra Blanca resident Bill Addington and other Texas anti-nuclear activists.

Rogers ventured out to see Sierra Blanca for herself. “It was wonderful going out there, because I had never really been to West Texas before,” she says. “Bill Addington took me down to the hot spring, right on the river at Sierra Blanca, and it’s gorgeous. There are all these hills and canyons and cliffs and wildflowers. I came to love the desert from being out there.”

But the political situation in the small West Texas town was not so pretty. The community was split over the dump, which many argued would bring prosperity to Sierra Blanca. Opponents, even soft-spoken ones, risked their livelihoods because the town authorities – the county commissioners, the sheriff, the local bank president – all seemed to have dollar signs in their eyes. A typical tale, said Rogers, was that of Adolfo Ramírez, who brought his kids to an Austin children’s march against the dump. When he returned to Sierra Blanca, he learned that the bank had repossessed his truck – which contained all his tools – because he was a few days late on a payment. When he went to pay and retrieve his possessions, the bank president scolded him about opposing the dump.

At the arrival of Rogers and other anti-nuclear activists, the town didn’t exactly bring out the welcome wagon, and even dump opponents in Sierra Blanca were wary. Asked whether she ever encountered “y’all-aren’t-from-these-parts” sentiments, Rogers answered with an emphatic yes. “I did hear once from Maria Méndez, the local matriarch, when a small handful of us first started going out there in 1994,” Rogers said. “People were a little worried about being seen with us, because they thought we were a bunch of raggedy hippies.” (With her close-cropped blonde hair and purple nail polish, Rogers looks more hip than hippie, but in a small West Texas town that distinction may not have counted for much.) Over time, part-time transplant Rogers would become an effective advocate for the concerns of the town. “We became friends, and eventually she started attending meetings here in Sierra Blanca,” recalls Addington. “In Austin there’s a different mindset, because they don’t live here. I asked Erin to be on the board of the [Sierra Blanca] Legal Defense Fund to keep a local perspective, so we didn’t lose control to an Austin political agenda.”

It was a lonely battle in the beginning. The half-dozen activists trying to block the dump believed their chances were slim. “The politicians chose scientists from the University of Texas in Austin and the Bureau of Economic Geology … and paid them millions of dollars to speak to authority boards and officials,” says Addington. “It’s hard when universities [and medical institutions] like M.D. Anderson, industry, and Advocates for Responsible Dumping in Texas [a nuke industry front group] are saying that cancer research will come to a halt if this waste dump isn’t built.”

Rogers accepted Addington’s invitation to join the Legal Defense Fund (founded by Addington along with Les Breeding and Don Gardner of the Texas Nuclear Responsibility Network), which was also underwritten by Vaughn’s foundation. “The Foundation for a Compassionate Society [dissolved by Vaughn last year] was the only foundation that really invested in the fight,” said Rogers. “The Tides, Hershey, and Wray foundations also gave us some money. But we applied to so many foundations you would think would have funded us right away.” The foundations’ reluctance seemed to be based on the belief that opposition to the dump was doomed. “Everyone thought we were wasting our time. The media wouldn’t cover the issue because they thought it was a done deal.” One reporter told Rogers that the dump story was no more important than “yesterday’s lunch.”

Despite the financial and political obstacles, Rogers, Addington, and their allies managed to put together an effective opposition group. “I think this has been a really unique coalition,” says Rogers, “because we’ve had property-rights ranchers, very conservative landowners, in coalition with environmental justice folks, Mexican activists, radical environmentalists – and we’ve worked together. I think it shows that despite the ways the media and politicians try to divide us, there is a basic understanding about what’s happening to the earth, and a basic desire to protect the earth, that cuts across political ideologies.”

Rogers and her colleagues also came up with alternatives to worn-out methods of resistance. (If your fingers are covered with second-degree burns from frequent yet ineffective candlelight vigils, look to the Sierra Blanca fight as a case study in creative activism.) In August 1994, for instance, the National Low-Level Waste management program hosted a glittering media conference at an Austin hotel to promote the dump, entitled “Radiation: The Public Depends on You.” The Legal Defense Fund quietly reserved a meeting room across the hall, where it held its own counter-conference, featuring leaders from the environmental justice movement, an oncologist, and other educators. In a session called “The Banquet of the Rich Nuclear Industry,” activists sat at a table drinking “blood” and “nuclear waste” – and then served baloney on silver platters. “The next day our counter-conference was news in papers across the state,” says Rogers. “The Austin American-Statesman editorialized against the Sierra Blanca dump for the first time, and state officials were calling their conference a disaster. And we all had a blast doing it.” The activists also took the offensive to elected officials who supported the dump, including Governor Richards. “We had a lockdown at the Governor’s mansion when Ann Richards lived there,” she says, recalling the time activists chained themselves to the mansion’s wrought-iron gates. “Then we ruined International Women’s Day for her, one year. We’ve had huge marches and closed bridges. In 1995, we stopped the [Maine-Vermont-Texas] Compact in Congress – voted down by two-thirds, due to grassroots pressure.”

On the state regulatory front, the Legal Defense Fund generated 400 requests for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to hold contested case hearings around the state. Those hearings concluded in Austin last summer, when the two presiding administrative law judges recommended against putting the dump in Sierra Blanca. They based their decision upon two issues: unresolved geological problems, and the potentially disproportionate impact of the dump on the low-income, minority residents. In October, the three T.N.R.C.C. commissioners ratified the recommendation of the judges. The unresolved questions that eventually derailed the dump had been researched, developed, and brought to public consciousness by the work of the Legal Defense Fund, led by Rogers and other activists.

To carry the fight against the Compact, Rogers brought in such diverse groups as the Vermont Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network, even the Bread and Puppet Theater, as well as more traditional nuclear researchers. In 1994, Rogers and others at the Foundation invited scientists working on radiation and health issues, and anti-nuke activists from around the country, to come to Austin and discuss the dump. Also crucial to victory was cross-border cooperation. The Border Coalition, including anti-nuke groups from Mexico and the U.S., would meet later that year in Juárez, across the river from El Paso. Rogers says the allies crossed the language barrier by any means necessary: “pantomime, charades, and later tequila.”

“Because a lot of us couldn’t speak Spanish, and held prejudices against Mexicans subconsciously, it took a long time to work through all of that,” Rogers recalls. “It’s a constant struggle to look at how you’re working, how you’re communicating with people, and how the white privilege manifests itself.” Ultimately, the two sides learned to work together, and it was the joint effort of Mexican and American dump opponents that helped turn the tide. Public demonstrations against the dump were held in Mexico City and along the border, including cross-border hunger strikes and temporary human blockades of the international bridges. In October of last year, Detrás la Notícia, a Mexican news show that airs throughout Latin America, broadcast a story on the dump, and the usually fractious national Congress unanimously passed a resolution condemning the border site as a violation of international treaties. Then later that month, five days before the T.N.R.C.C.’s rejection of the dump, eight members of the Mexican Congress held a hunger strike outside the Governor’s Mansion, after George Bush spurned visiting Mexican officials who earlier had attempted to meet with him about the dump. “The people of Mexico took the plan to take waste from the Canadian border and dump it on the Mexican border as an affront to their national dignity,” said Rogers. “They tried to work within the system, but were denied access to the hearings, and were denied diplomatic avenues. They were completely justified in taking up the stones of bridge blockades and hunger-strikes, to fight the gringo Goliath.”

The furor raised by the Mexican delegation may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back – particularly since the camel might want to run for president. Governor George Bush was flamboyantly courting the Hispanic vote, both for his November election and for his undeclared presidential run. Facing continued public outcry, further legal conflict, and the legislative opposition likely if they were to overrule their own administrative judges, Bush and his Commissioners apparently realized that surrender on Sierra Blanca – with the hope that some other dump site could be found in West Texas – was the only available option. The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund – to use Rogers’ own terms, another little anti-nuke David facing the Goliaths of the nuclear industry and government power – had been victorious against overwhelming odds.

What’s next for the movement? The waste industry, still searching for cheaper waste sites, remains determined to build a dump in Texas, although the Barnwell site in South Carolina has sufficient capacity for the forseeable future. Currently, the leading candidate appears to be Andrews County, where a private corporation, Envirocare, proposes to build a dump to house both power plant and Department of Energy waste. Yet as far as so-called low-level waste is concerned, says Rogers, “These dumps are being built for waste that doesn’t even exist yet. If we shut down the plants today, we’d be fine. Now, high-level waste, that’s another problem. If we shut down the plants and entombed them where they are, we definitely wouldn’t need another dump, and that’s what we’ve been advocating all along. If power plants continue to generate waste, that waste should be stored as close to the plants as possible, so that we can monitor it and get at it, not bury it with our drinking water. The bottom line is, it doesn’t need to be dumped anywhere.”

In the wake of its Sierra Blanca victory, Rogers says, the anti-nuke movement is in fighting form. “The way I’ve been looking at it is that we’ve been doing our part to defend our corner of the world, and in the meantime we’re communicating with groups just like us that are defending their part, and we’re winning.” Rogers says that the group that defeated the Sierra Blanca project will also fight the effort to send radioactive waste to Andrews County.

Rogers is leaving the executive directorship of the Legal Defense Fund, although she’s vowed to stay involved as a concerned citizen. “People told me that this kind of victory only comes along once in a lifetime. I hope that’s not true,” she says. For the present, she’s joined the legislative staff of Democratic State Representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth.

The fight, Rogers says, was long and exhausting. “I learned a lot about how to pace myself, and how to be in it for the long haul, because for a long time, I felt like I was beating my head against a wall – like I was going insane. Now that it’s over, and I’ve had a couple weeks to look back on it – now that I’ve ruined a relationship I was in, and my personality has altered – I think I learned how to do it better next time.” Her friends and allies counter that she did pretty well this go-round. “I’m really in awe of the work Erin did,” Senator Paul Wellstone told the Observer. “Her work has been grassroots, citizen politics at its very best.” (Rogers, in return, calls Wellstone “a saint – the only politician … who really put his heart into this campaign with no ulterior motives or agenda of his own.”)

Legal Defense Fund attorney David Frederick comments, “However romantic people want to be about the masses rising up and taking on the establishment, the truth is you never prevail if you don’t have someone putting in ten- to twelve-hour days, week after week, doing that not-necessarily-exciting work, like fundraising.”

Rogers, he says, was that person: “Without Erin, the victory wouldn’t have been possible.”

Ayelet Hines is a former editor at Earth First! Journal, the Observer office manager, and an environmental agitator.

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