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Peggy Pryor is one of a few Andrews citizens to speak out against Waste Control. of people who get their hands dirty “Andrews is really a working man’s town,” Jackson says. “People here don’t own the oil wells, they work on ’emthey’re the drillers, the pulling unit people, the pumpers.” In this rough and tumble corner of the oil patch, hazards are a fact of life. Men in Andrews often bear the scarsor missing digitsof oilfield accidents. Pryor’s father lost a finger; a childhood neighbor was decapitated. Safety is much improved now, but accidents and deaths still happen. By comparison, handling radioactive waste seems safe. People here don’t generally use the ‘B’ word out of superstition, but it wasn’t long ago that the oil field was booming. Forward-thinking leaders already see the end of oil. “We’re trying to get off the oil tit because the bust will come one day,” says Richard Dolgener, the county judge. The nuclear industryfrom radioactive waste to new reactorsoffers Andrews an exit strategy, a way to make sure that once the oil’s gone, there’s still a reason to live here. Maybe it’s no great surprise that Andrews and the surrounding area are embracing an industry that other communitieseven poorer and more desperate oneshave rejected. “Look around,” said the librarian I struck up a conversation with while scanning microfilm of the Andrews County News. “What else are we gonna do out here?” Waste Control Specialists settled on Andrews at the invitation of an extraordinary newspaperman and civic activist, James Roberts. Roberts, who died in 1997, was a tireless booster of Andrews in both print and deed. His column, “Drifting Sands,” ran on the front page of the Andrews County News for nearly five decades. The column served as an outlet for Roberts’ combustive and entertaining mix of West Texas folklore, ultrarightwing jeremiads, and plugs for Roberts’ ideas about economically diversifying the oil patch. One of the highest accolades an Andrews resident could receive was a column deeming him or her “a good ‘tin.” A frequent “Drifting Sands” topic was the scourge of government interference in business and the hysteria of environmentalists, especially in regard to nuclear power. Once Roberts opined on the healing properties of natural baths containing radioactive material. “He was a salty old bird,” says Don Ingram, Roberts’ nephew and the current publisher of the newspaper. Roberts also led the Andrews Industrial Foundation, a nonprofit board composed of local elected officials, religious leaders, and businessmen that critics accuse of functioning as a sort of shadow government. The foundation met privately, raising concerns that it was formed to skirt the state’s openmeeting laws. “James Roberts had more influence on Andrews and its fabric than any one man,” says hydrologist Jackson. “He was the glue that kind of held it all together.” Roberts imagined Andrews as a singular place. “The history of Andrews is a 200-year voice [sic] crying in the vastness of open space to be found, to be illuminated by the spotlight of recognition, and to be heard,” he wrote in a published history of the county. Roberts writes of “seven different, distinct waves of white men” who settled Andrewscattlemen, homesteaders, oil prospectors, Indian killers. “From those who remained sprung a peculiar oneness, a striking cohesiveness, an almost built-in hereditary togetherness not repeated elsewhere in the state.” Andrews was one of the last frontiers to be settled in Texas. And for good reason. “Thirty miles to water, 10 miles to wood, and 6 inches from hell”so goes the Depression-era saying, gallows humor recited even now with evident pride. Local legend has it that Shafter Lake, a salty, undrinkable puddle ringed by oil wells outside of town, was formed from the tears of pioneer women stricken by desolation. The Comanche Indians avoided the area, too, at least until Indian hunters drove them off all the good land. This is no country for old men. The landscape is humbling and unforgiving. Wizened shin oaks and oil pump-jacks bobbing their vaguely equine heads do little to break the vertiginous expanse of red dirt and big sky. It’s all background scenery here, no foreground, a breathtaking nothingness that could drive a tree-hugger stark raving mad with loneliness. Roberts, dreaming big, saw boundless potential. In the early ’80s, Roberts and the Industrial Foundation launched an aggressive campaign to bring new industries to town. The roller coaster of the oil marketsbig booms 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 6, 2009