At first glance, the sandy scrubland just outside this small west Texas town might seem like a better place than most for a nuclear waste dump. The terrain is as dry as a sun-bleached bone, and there don't appear to be a lot of people around.
The folks who call the gritty rises in and around Sierra Blanca home are mostly poor Hispanics. And the ranch where Texas wants to build its "low-level radioactive waste facility" - which would containerize and bury nuclear waste from Texas, Maine, and Vermont - is less than 20 miles from the Rio Grande, which separates the United States from Mexico.
The result of those factors is a hornets' nest of "environmental racism" charges that has turned tiny Sierra Blanca into the unlikely focus of an international dispute.
Mexico's Congress in May voted unanimously to condemn the planned dump, calling it a danger to border health, a violation of a 1983 binational accord protecting the border environment, and an "aggression against Mexican dignity."
The last point is a reference to the aspect of the Sierra Blanca dump that is gaining growing attention: The facility, on Texas's heavily Hispanic border with Mexico, would receive radioactive waste from two far-away, "white" states, situated on the US border with "white" Canada.
"They think we're a bunch of dumb Mexicans down here who aren't going to do anything and will just take whatever they give us," says Richard de la Rosa, a Sierra Blanca resident enjoying a family barbeque. "And the truth is people around here don't vote and don't get involved."
Ninety miles away in Ciudad Juarez, Green Party City Councilman Jos Luis Rodriguez says, "We hear about 12 proposals for other dumps like this on the US side of the border with Mexico, and not one is proposed for the border with Canada. It seems curious and coincidental," adds Mr. Rodrguez, who went on a 24-day hunger strike in April to protest the dump, "until you understand environmental racism."
Environmental racism caught on in the US in the early 1990s, as minority rights groups and environmental organizations publicized a pattern of relegating toxic wastes to poor and minority communities. In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order banning the practice.
The dump was first proposed in 1991, and has only recently come under fire on the racism issue. One reason is that while Texas Gov. George Bush - who prides himself as a "good friend" of Mexico - favors the project, his Democratic opponent, Gary Mauro, opposes the dump as anti-Hispanic.
Dump proponents insist the project's location has nothing to do with race and everything to do with safety and technical factors.
Racial factors "had absolutely nothing to do with" selecting Sierra Blanca, says Ruben Alvarado, chief engineer for the Texas Low-Level Waste Disposal Authority, which would build and manage the project. "The fact is that the Texas population is heavily Hispanic. It would be hard to locate anything in Texas where you weren't near a minority community."
According to Mr. Alvarado, the Texas authority limited its site-selection process to West Texas areas with deep water tables. In Sierra Blanca, drillers hit water at about 700 feet, he says. In most nuclear-waste facilities in the country that have had problems - three of six are now closed - shallow groundwater conditions added to worries about contamination.
Sierra Blanca was selected because it is in what the authority calls a nonseismic zone and because of the sparse population. Hudspeth County - about the size of Connecticut - has a population of 3,500.
Dump opponents counter each of Alvarado's claims. A "desert" nuclear waste dump in Nevada is already leaking into a deep aquifer, "providing a precedent for what would happen" in Sierra Blanca, says Diane D'Arrigo, a director at the Nuclear Information & Resource Service in Washington. She says earthquakes centered south in Alpine, Texas, are routinely felt in Sierra Blanca.
Ms. D'Arrigo refutes Alvarado's claims that storage technology would be appreciably different from that used at already-leaking dumps in the US. She also attacks the use of "low level" to describe the waste, claiming much of the materials - like filters or tubing from nuclear reactors - would be of higher-level radioactivity than some high-level weapons waste.
The dump requires congressional approval of a tri-state compact, but the final say rests in Texas's hands and is expected in August. Technical arguments are not expected to stop it. But opponents say the racism charges, and stiffer opposition from Mexico, still might.
"We know very well we were targeted for this thing because of what we are: a low-educated, low-income, Catholic minority community," says Cathi Baylor Rush, whose family has run cattle in the area for decades. "They pinpointed Mexican Catholics as people who accept their fate." Sierra Blanca was also picked because it already receives tons of New York City sludge every day with little complaint, she adds.
Mrs. Rush's sister, Jane Baylor, says that as a candidate in 1994, Bush told her he would call for a local vote on the project. "But we never heard any more about that," she says. "It's just being pushed on what is now a very divided community."
The two say they see forceful opposition from Mexico as the last best hope to stop it. "I don't think we could ignore a treaty to protect the border and its resources if Mexico really made a loud noise about it," says Rush.
Mexican officials only recently came out against the dump - in fact in 1996, Mexico's environment secretary said the facility did not violate the 1983 border accord.
But at a regular binational meeting earlier this month, Mexico formally asked that the dump be moved. The issue is set to be taken up again at an interparliamentary conference in Mexico this weekend, and Mexican legislators are in Austin this week, where Bush has declined to see them.
In the mean time, a divided Sierra Blanca waits. "I'm for it because I think it'll help the town by bringing in some money and jobs," says Ruthie Vance, a cashier at R&G Grocery. "You have to figure they're going to do what they want anyway."
But down the street at Michael's restaurant, owner Richard Rose has a different view. "I don't like it. I think they chose our little town because it's so poor and so small, it just couldn't protect itself."