#VettingBernie: How Sanders Cleared Way to Dump Toxic Nuclear Waste on Poor Hispanics (and How They Fought Back)

Back in 1994, the state of Vermont had a problem: it had a nuclear power plant operating, but nowhere to dispose of the toxic waste. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, located in Vernon, VT, provided 71.8% of all electricity generated within Vermont, amounting to 35% of Vermont's electricity consumption, according to figures in 2008. However, Vernon was deemed to be geologically unsuitable for nuclear waste disposal, so a search by the state began for a new low-level radioactive waste dump site. The result of the search: enter a tri-state compact with Texas and Maine to build a disposal facility in Texas and ship the waste there. Vermont's Legislature passed the General Assembly Act 137, which outlined the compact but still needed US Congressional approval to enact.

Enter our hero, then-Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who ardently supported and  co-sponsored the bill H.R. 629, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Consent Act. Once passed and signed, the bill would validate the currently existing individual state bills, and thus start the construction of the waste disposal site. But where in Texas would the dump site be? Tasked with finding a suitable location, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (TLLRWDA) recommended to build the waste facility five miles away from a small town in West Texas called Sierra Blanca:

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

And how did they come to a decision to pick that town? Fighting the passage of bill H.R. 629 in the senate, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) spoke on the matter in great length and detail. In short, it was a case of environmental injustice. Despite the findings of the consultants that Sierra Blanca was not a good site due to its “complex geology” and also a history of earthquakes in the past due to tectonic faults in El Paso and Hudspeth counties, the Waste Authority still went ahead and picked the site because the people living there would be least likely to resist or make a fuss about it, since the majority of the residents are Spanish-speaking and poor. They had tried to pick other locations for the site, but was met with either lawsuit or fierce opposition. So, finally, the Waste Authority just gave up and chose the path of least resistance, procedures and recommendations be damned. Texas legislature also gave a helping hand by passing the Box Law and stripped the rights of the residents in Sierra Blanca from suing. The only recourse they could take was to obtain an injunction from the state Supreme Court, which means they would have to make the 500-mile trip to Austin just to be heard.

A factoid one should note here was that at this time, the governor for whom the TLLRWDA was working was none other than George W. Bush. Oh, and Jane Sanders, Bernie's wife, sits on the Board of this wonderful Texas authority.

So, despite all that has happened to select the nuclear waste site, what was the course of action taken by Bernie Sanders? He feigned ignorance. Instead of acknowledging the environmental injustice that was going on, he washed his hands clean of any responsibility for that. While introducing the bill to the House, he insisted that it was not Congress’s job to designate a specific disposal site but that the task should be left up to Texas, a thinly veiled attempt to renege on responsibility and instead pass the buck to someone else. As far as he’s concerned, it’s only his job to ensure that somehow Vermont can send their toxic waste to Texas. The town name Sierra Blanca was mentioned over 58 times during the course of the debates on the bill. It’s highly doubtful that Bernie Sanders didn’t know exactly where they were going to dump the toxic waste from Vermont.

Fortunately, the local residents were not just going to take it lying down. In 1994, Bill Addington, a resident of Sierra Blanca, with the help of the Nuclear Responsibility Network, formed the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund (SBLDF) to try to fight the building of the toxic site. Eventually, in 1998, a group of West Texas residents made their way all the way to Vermont, in hopes of elucidating the people there how the nuclear waste from out of state was affecting their lives. For weeks, they spoke in front of committees, with Vermont residents unaware of what was going on, and gained compassion and even apologies from them. Finally, they met with Bernie Sanders on the issue. What was his response? Drop dead:

Before the rally Sanders invited the three West Texans to meet with him privately, and the Texans eagerly agreed. The meeting was no longer than Sanders’ attention span - when it comes to Sierra Blanca. “He didn’t listen,” Curry said. “He had his mind made up.” Afterward, Bernie was giving his pro forma campaign speech, never mentioning nuclear power or nuclear waste. Sierra Blanca activist Bill Addington, who’d arrived just that morning to join the march, along with his neighbor María Méndez, had had enough, and he yelled from the crowd, “What about my home, Bernie? What about Sierra Blanca?”

Several others joined in. “What about Sierra Blanca, Bernie?”

Sanders left the stage, which surprised no one in the small Texas delegation. Earlier, he had told them, “My position is unchanged, and you’re not gonna like it.” When they asked if he would visit the site in Sierra Blanca, he said, “Absolutely not. I’m gonna be running for re-election in the state of Vermont.”

By now, it's clear that Bernie Sanders knew of Sierra Blanca, and despite the same pleas made by the West Texas residents as they had done with the Vermont residents, he was unmoved. Worse, there was no sense of compassion or remorse from him for what the bill was going to do to the residents of Sierra Blanca. His mind was already made up, and nothing can convince him to change his position. As the bill HR 629 had already passed both chambers of Congress with veto-proof margins and was just waiting to be signed into law, it was already a done deal. By this point, it seemed that his re-election campaign was more important than the plight of these West Texas residents. It is interesting to note the pattern we see here that is also currently in his campaign, where his focus is always in making stump speeches and ignore or evade direct questions not answerable by his well-rehearsed talking points.

Fortunately, that was not the end of the road for the residents of Sierra Blanca. Efforts continued from the SBLDF and even from the Mexican Government, who cited that the building of nuclear waste site so near the border violates the La Paz Agreement of 1983, which states that both the US and Mexico must work toward reducing or even eliminating “contaminating sources” 64 miles north and south of the border. Many Mexican officials from nearby towns across the border also protested due to the seemingly blatant environmental injustice occurring in Sierra Blanca. Due to these pressures, in the end, despite congressional and state approvals, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission voted 3-0 on October 20, 1998 to deny the TLLRWDA a license to build a disposal facility outside Sierra Blanca, citing concerns regarding the socioeconomic impact and safety. Thus, victory was achieved for these residents of Sierra Blanca, no thanks to Bernie Sanders.

So, what did we learn about our glorious revolution leader Bernie Sanders from all this? First, all his claim of having always cared about the poor and fighting for minorities is a lie. He was willing to let a powerless group of underprivileged Hispanics suffer for the benefit of his mostly Caucasian Vermont constituents. He was willing to let environmental injustice play out at the expense of the Sierra Blanca residents. It is disgustingly hypocritical of him that on his official campaign website right now, he touts that he will fight racial injustice, with one of the sub-issues being environmental violence. Where was his sense of racial injustice then, when he tried to dump toxic waste on the poor people of Sierra Blanca? It was not even in his realm of concern, because he did not need the vote of the people of Sierra Blanca to keep himself in office in Vermont. But now that he needs the Latino votes, he hopes that everyone will forget this little incident here in West Texas.

Second, he is just another deceptive politician who refuses to be culpable for his actions. He pretended to not know where the exact dump site was going to be and emphatically noted in his speech upon introducing the bill that it’s not their job to debate about the actual site because that is the responsibility of Texas legislature and its "people". He smartly protected himself in case something bad came out of this, since he could easily blame it on Texas. According to him, he's not responsible for picking Sierra Blanca as the waste disposal site. Rather than saying the buck stops here and be held accountable for it, he chose to pass the buck instead. Is this a quality we want in our potential next President, someone who avoids taking responsibility when things could possibly go negative? 

Third, just like the Texas Waste Authority, he took the path of least resistance, choosing the easy way out. If he had really cared about the environmental injustice suffered by underprivileged Hispanics, he could have recommended that Vermont pull out of the compact until a more suitable site is found, one that does not reek so badly of socioeconomic and environmental racism. He could also have supported the proposed amendments to the bill by Senator Wellstone to give rights to sue back to the residents of Sierra Blanca. But seeing as to how those amendments might jeopardize the tri-state Compact, he vehemently opposed it. In the end, all he cared about was to find the easiest way to rid Vermont of its nuclear toxic waste, instead of choosing to stand up for what is right and just.

Fourth, when Bernie Sanders has made up his mind, one cannot convince him otherwise. The confrontation between him and the residents of Sierra Blanca in Vermont was very telling. He had already made up his mind, and nothing the residents said, even detailing how their lives will be adversely affected by the bill, will change his mind. Some of his supporters might say this uncompromising quality is something they like in him, since it seems like he's "standing his ground" or not bending to the outside influences. As he makes grandiose plans to pass single-payer healthcare and free college for all, by being unyielding and not listening to others and compromise even when faced with new evidence, Bernie Sanders only guarantees that we will never see the light of day for any of his lofty goals.

So, let's face it. Bernie Sanders is no revolutionary. In the end, he's just another opportunistic career politician who will do and say things just to advance himself in the office--just like how he is opportunistic now all of a sudden wanting to proclaim to be the leader of the Democratic Party, despite having remained an independent and never having really done anything to help the party in the past twenty years. The MSM rhetoric has been highly pro-Sanders because they want to prolong this primary race for ratings. But the sooner the people realize who he really is and start to scrutinize and question his choices in the past, such as this abhorrent bill to dump toxic waste on the poor people of Sierra Blanca, the better off we will be.

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