International Affiance of the Bravo, a coalition of environmental groups in the El Paso/Juarez area, said the development of several hazardous and radioactive waste dumps in West Texas and southern New Mexico is simply another in a series of environmental threats that face the binational metropolitan area. “We’re choking on very foul, polluted air, our water supply is running out and the Rio Grande, or the Rio Bravo as it’s called in Mexico, is a virtual cesspool,” Boren said. Now, in addition to the polluting industries in El Paso and Juarez, Boren said, the state is proposing to locate a nuclear waste facility in Sierra Blanca. In addition, the federal Department of Energy has proposed to bury defense-related nuclear waste in Carlsbad, New Mexico, 150 miles west of El Paso. In Mescalero, New Mexico, about 125 miles from El Paso, the feds are proposing a highlevel nuclear waste storage facility. “We feel that this region is being definitely targeted to become some sort of international sacrifice area, to become the dumping ground for nuclear and toxic waste for the country,” Boren said. In addition, Pecos County has been suggested as a site for a deep-injection well to receive as many as 18 million barrels of industrial and refinery waste. Pecos County already is the site of an interim storage facility for radioactive waste generated by the University of Texas System. Dryden, in Terrell County, is the site of a proposed dump for toxic PCBs and other hazardous wastes. Further down the Rio Grande, at Spofford, there is talk of reviving the radioactive waste dump application. And another sewage sludge project has been proposed for Reeves County. When the federal government was proposing to place a high-level nuclear waste repository near Pantex in the mid-1980s, Les Breeding of Amarillo noted, activists got help from Jim Hightower’ s Texas Department of Agriculture, Gov. Mark White and Attorney General Jim Mattox. Recently, when the Texas Nuclear Responsibility Network was opposing plans to store plutonium at Pantex, the grassroots groups received some help from Richards and Attorney General Dan Morales, “but they have not been nearly as aggressive,” Breeding said. “That was most peculiar to me because the state of Texas has been involved in forums with the DOE and has made some fairly aggressive statements, but whenever it came time to act, the citizens were going. it alone,” he said. Diane Wilson of Point Comfort is trying to stop Formosa Plastics from continuing to discharge toxic waste into Lavaca Bay, where she is trying to make a living harvesting seafood but where state and national officials are alarmed at the level of mercury contamination. She has filed a lawsuit in federal court and has appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency to stop Formosa. In the meantime, Wilson said, the Texas Department of Health has stopped oyster and crab harvests in Lavaca Bay, and the contamination hasn’t helped the shrimping industry that depends on the estuary. The Parks and Wildlife Department has estimated the cost of the bay closure at $140 million annually; one-third of the jobs in Calhoun County are threatened, but Wilson said the toxic flow continues from Formosa. “There hasn’t been a single politician who has treated this problem with any seriousness at all,” Wilson said. “I feel like Governor Richards has been the same thing. She’s talked the good talk, but as far as I’m concerned, the politicians won’t change anything. It’s got to come from the people. The people have got to become outraged at what they’re doing to the coastline. … I’ve drawn a line: They’ve got the tax abatements and the inroads into the political entities, but by God they aren’t going to get that bay.” Rick Abraham, Houston-based executive director of Texans United, said the time has come to call Richards and her appointees to account. “It’ s fair to say that this commission has gotten away with a lot that under a previous administration they wouldn’t have gotten away with because so many people, like myself, believed in what it is that you promised to do,” he told the commission. “So I’m here to ask you to reconsider the basic philosophy that is guiding your actions and the course that you have taken for this agency because what is happening is polluters are going unpunished, permits are being granted that are weak and undeserved and this agency’s actions or lack of actions, I think, is a contributing factor in the increased violence that is taking place against citizens.” Susan Rieff, director of the Governor’s Policy Council and her adviser on environmental issues, said Richards has followed through on her campaign commitments since 1991, when she drafted legislation that provided for tougher regulation of hazardous waste dumps. Richards objected to location of the low-level radioactive waste dump when it was proposed for a site near Fort Hancock in Hudspeth County, but the Legislature then drew a box within the county where the facility could be located. Rieff noted that the state went ahead with the facility and acted to form a compact with Vermont and Maine, which under federal law allows the state to reject radioactive waste from other states. If the state does not join a compact, it may be forced to accept other states’ waste, Rieff said. As for problems at Gibraltar Chemical and Formosa Plastics, Rieff said the governor has been very clear that those facilities must comply with the rules or face shutdown and Richards has urged the TNRCC to closely monitor both plants. At Pantex, Rieff said, the governor’s office was instrumental in getting the U.S. Department of Energy to negotiate with community groups on interim storage of plutonium. The deal will allow the feds to go ahead with the dismantling of nuclear bombs but commits Pantex to extensive environmental studies. And the governor was unhappy with the fact that Merco was allowed to proceed with the sludge ranch in Hudspeth County without having to go through public hearings before the commission, but Rieff said new rules will prevent that from happening again. Richards did not promote the idea of bringing sewage from New York City to Sierra Blanca, Rieff said. Chairman John Hall defended the work of the TNRCC and its predecessors, through enforcement as well as encouraging voluntary pollution reduction. “In fact, there’s not another state in the union that has a pollution prevention and reduction program that’ s as aggressive as the program we have right here in Texas,” Hall said. The Clean Texas 2000 program, for example, got 114 industrial facilities to commit to reduce the generation of hazardous waste by 57 percent and the release of toxic waste by 66 percent by the year 2000. He also said citizens have had more input into the permit processes. Some grassroots organizations such as Texans United complain that the agencies have offered too many carrots and not applied enough sticks to get industries to cut down in their pollution. But both the Water Commission and the Air Control Board levied record amounts of fines in 1991 and 1993, before they were merged to form the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. Gov . Richards also formed the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force within the TNRCC to aid state and federal investigations of environmental crimes. The task force has obtained four convictions and has about 20 active investigations underway. In the case of Elf Atochem North America Inc., the Water Commission levied a $2.5 million fine in December 1992, the largest environmental enforcement penalty ever obtained by a Texas agency, and required remediation of arsenic contamination in Bryan that ultimately will cost the company $12 million. Hall said the TNRCC will continue to take enforcement actions “when we have documentation to support them.” Hall said there is an increased awareness at the agency of environmental health concerns and environmental quality. “We have significant environmental problems in this state. Everybody knows that. But we are also making significant progress. We have the tightest water quality standards in the nation in place and the hazardous waste standards we have in place are among the tightest in the nation. We’re moving more aggressively than any other state in terms of cleaning up Superfund sites. EPA also gives Texas credit for being more aggressive than any other state in implementing the Clean Air Continued on page 23 4 MARCH 11, 1994
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