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New York Sludge Loses Charm in Texas Town

Let's face it, there's nothing glamorous about New York City sludge. It smells bad, it carries copper and lead, and lawmakers there won't have it.

But four years ago, this west Texas town of 650 learned that an Oklahoma company had won a six-year contract, with the state's approval, to dispose of New York's treated sewage on a ranch just north of here. Residents were leery at first, but promises of strict monitoring, 50 new jobs, and $50,000 a year in town spending money won them over.

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These days, though, it's starting to smell like a Faustian bargain. New York has announced plans to ship even more sludge here for an additional 15 years. And this summer, Texas officials chose Sierra Blanca for another kind of dump: one that will house radioactive waste.

As stockpiles of hazardous materials grow nationwide, and as existing dumps hit capacity, Sierra Blanca won't be the first cash-poor town wooed by waste peddlers. Its experience, though, shows how treacherous a business it can be.

"Once you open the door, it's awfully hard to close it," says C. Wesley Leonard, chairman of the El Paso Sierra Club. "People have the idea now that the welcome mat is out here for them to send stuff that's not acceptable anywhere else."

Indeed, Sierra Blanca is poised to become the waste capital of Texas, and perhaps, the nation. The sludge farm here is the world's largest, covering 91,000 acres - an area that would be hard to cross in a day by foot.

On cool summer nights, when the wind blows south, an odor of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and feces wafts through town. The proposed 400-acre radioactive-waste site, east of town, lies on a floodplain above an active seismic zone.

But this is not just the story of a small, powerless town getting dumped on, both literally and figuratively. A fair number of townsfolk here support the sludge operation, and some of them are neutral about the radioactive waste, which will emanate from hospitals and the state's two nuclear plants, along with plants in Maine and Vermont.

After all, they note, Hudspeth County, where Sierra Blanca is located, is larger than the state of Connecticut and has a population of only 2,000.

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"My feeling is you've gotta put it somewhere, and this is better than dumping it in the ocean," says June Barnett, proprietor of the A&M Motel on the town's dilapidated strip. "We'd rather have an electronics plant out here, but that's not realistic."

In some ways, the projects have helped the town. MERCO, the company that runs the sludge-spreading operation, has helped renovate the high school, donated computer equipment, created a scholarship fund, and given every town resident a Thanksgiving turkey. They've hired researchers from Texas Tech to monitor the soil, and have instituted a wildlife management program.

The proposed nuclear dump has brought even more bounty.

For the last two years, the Texas state commission charged with locating the site has donated a total of $1.9 million to the Hudspeth County development fund. The town boasts two shiny new firetrucks, an ambulance, a medical clinic, and is on the verge of installing sewers. State officials have assured residents that the health and safety risks are minimal.

But to some Sierra Blancans, the money and the parade of officials and scientists bearing reassurance is engaged in the worst kind of demogoguery, particularly in a majority Hispanic town where few people are educated, and 40 percent of all residents live below the poverty line.

"They call it a community-development package, but we call it economic blackmail," says local merchant Bill Addington, the dump's chief local opponent. "It's about personal gain, not what's good for the town."

According to Mr. Addington, the three-member panel of judges that runs the county signed petitions opposing the dumps before their election, but have since offered little resistance.

The impetus for placing the radioactive dump in Sierra Blanca, says one state official, had a lot to do with a statement by Judge James Peace that the town might be interested.


"That's the tragedy of the situation," says Mr. Leonard of the Sierra Club. "They go into these desperately poor communities and hold a carrot out, saying, 'Look, if you take this horrific crap nobody wants that's illegal where it's generated, we'll give money to benefit some people in your community.' That's not the future I want for the region I live in."

By all accounts, there's little or no support locally for the new sludge contract, which New York may award to a New Jersey company that has promised to do the job more cheaply.

And a recent public hearing about the nuclear dump drew 700 county residents, most of whom spoke against the proposal.

The city of El Paso, 90 miles to the northwest, is considering joining the fight against both projects, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila have sent emissaries to protest the nuclear dump, which would rest just 16 miles from the Rio Grande.

But most observers say it's up to the residents of Sierra Blanca to lead the charge.

John Fulton, a MERCO welder and a longtime resident who opposes the new sludge company and the radioactive-waste dump, says that's a tall order in a town that has always been so divided that it "can't get together on a good marble game."

Ms. Barnett, for one, says many longtime residents don't think the projects are such a bad idea, because they'll provide enough jobs to keep the town from blowing away, while making sure that it doesn't grow too much. "I like things just the way they are," she says.

To others, though, particularly younger residents with children, that's a woefully short-sighted view.

"The sludge was okay, but the nuclear dump I don't like," says Eva Ibarra, the night cook at Terry's Restaurant. "I think people have been corrupted by the jobs and the money, and the poor people don't know how to fight. If I had known this would happen, I never would have moved here."

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