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FEATURE The Woman Who Slew Goliath BY AYELET HINES 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.” tually 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 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 Ramirez, 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 Mendez, 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 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 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 FEBRUARY 5, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13 NOM V\\ k J Al