In 1998, then Representative Bernie Sanders cosponsored and actively ushered a bill through Congress that would allow Vermont and Maine to dump their nuclear waste in the poor disadvantaged Hispanic community of Sierra Blanca, Texas.
Three West Texan protestors went to Vermont to plead with then Representative Sanders that the dump site shouldn't be located in this poor minority community, Mr. Sanders told the three activists, "My position is unchanged and you’re not going to like it.” When asked if he would at least visit the proposed site in Sierra Blanca, he said: “Absolutely not. I'm gonna to be running for re-election in the state of Vermont."
“He didn't listen,” Curry said. “He had his mind made up."
Reading this article, I had a real sense that Mr. Sanders just didn't care about their concerns or the plight of this poor Hispanic community. It wasn't his community to care about. If history tells us anything about minority communities they seemingly always get the short end of the stick. Flint, MI is one such community that comes to mind. In this case, the community of Sierra Blanca didn't have any real political clout and they were reaching out to Mr. Sanders for help.
Mr. Sanders could have stood behind this very poor Hispanic community, but as his response to the protestors revealed, he chose the political expedient route. In this case, he didn't stand up for the less fortunate in Sierra Blanca.
Paul Wellstone would later call this injustice against the people of Sierra Blanca a case of "environmental racism”.
''I think maybe they choose us because we are a small town, because we are so distant from everyone and because we have no political power,'' Ms. Bustamante said. ''I think maybe they are taking advantage of us. I believe that most of the people are opposed to it.''
Now compare this with the late, great Paul Wellstone, who fought with passion on the Senate floor for this poor disadvantaged community. His impassioned speech for the people of Sierra Blanca was a shining moment on the Senate floor.
For Mr. Wellstone, reaching out, helping and fighting for minorities came naturally. He immediately recognized the injustice and fought for this community, like it was his very own.
In Washington, Wellstone called the dump part of a "national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution" that preyed on those lacking political clout and financial resources.
Wellstone has promised to force a fearsome debate on the issue and the overarching issue of what he calls “environmental racism.”
Mr. Wellstone fought on the floor to add amendments that would give this poor Hispanic community the legal right to stop this dump site if it could prove racial discrimination factored into placing the site, which Mr. Wellstone proved was in fact the case during his speech. Link to video of his entire speech below.
Transcript of floor speech: www.gpo.gov/...
When it came up for a vote in May 1998, Sanders listened to 12 anti-dump delegates as they outlined their concerns. The next day, he spoke in favor of the bill because of its "strong support" in all three states.
Mr. Sanders eventually voted to have the Wellstone amendments stripped out of the Texas-Maine-Vermont Compact bill in conference.
Mr. Sanders campaign for President is built around this grand premise of giving power back to the people. A political revolution by the people. When he had the opportunity to give power back to the poor Latino community of Sierra Blanca, he voted against the Wellstone amendments that would have given this community the real power they needed to fight back against environmental racism.
Paul Wellstone’s Senate floor speech can be seen here: www.c-span.org/...
The speech starts at the 5 hour 35 minute mark. I would highly recommend you watch Paul Wellstone’s entire speech. It’s incredibly moving. I included a partial transcript of the speech below, but the video is much longer and more detailed.
Voted to dump Vermont’s nuclear waste in a majority Latino community in Sierra Blanca, Texas
In 1998, the House of Representatives approved a compact struck between Texas, Vermont and Maine that would allow Vermont and Maine to dump low-level nuclear waste at a designated site in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Sanders, at the time representing Vermont in the House, cosponsored the bill and actively ushered it through Congress.
Located about 16 miles from the Mexican border, Sierra Blanca’s population is predominantly of Mexican ancestry. At the time, the community was about two-thirds Latino, and its residents had an average income of $8,000, according to the an article in the Bangor Daily News.
The low-level nuclear waste would include "items such as scrap metal and worker’s gloves… as well as medical gloves used in radiation treatments at hospitals," according to the Bangor Daily News.
The House approved Wednesday a deal that would allow Maine and Vermont to dump their low-level nuclear waste from places like the now-closed Maine Yankee in a poor Hispanic town in west Texas.
By a 305-117 vote, the House approved the compact without any of the troublesome amendments that had been previously attached to the tri-state deal, setting up a final showdown in the Senate that will determine its fate.
Opponents of the Maine-Vermont-Texas compact contend that Sierra Blanca was chosen as the site because it lacks political clout, considering it is 67 percent Mexican-American and its residents have an average income of $8,000.
When the House and Senate hammered out a single bill, supporters of the compact won out, and the amendments were simply tossed aside. Because of that, Wellstone has promised to force a fearsome debate on the issue and the overarching issue of what he calls “environmental racism.”
“I will use every parliamentary tool available to try and block this shameful bill,” Wellstone said.
Partial transcript of Paul Wellstone's Senate floor speech.
Entire transcript: www.gpo.gov/...
Senator Paul Wellstone:: Mr. President and colleagues, environmental justice is a difficult issue. Too often we hide behind excuses. We say, ``These are private sector decisions. This is a matter of State and local responsibility. It is too hard to prove.'' But this is pretty easy. The dump will not be built if we reject this compact. We have direct responsibility, we have a Federal role, a direct Federal role. We cannot wash our hands of this. We cannot walk away and pretend we are not to blame. We are all responsible. And it is important to take a stand. This compact raises troubling issues of environmental justice. In this case, the Texas Legislature selected Hudspeth County. They already selected Hudspeth County. And the Texas Waste Authority selected the Sierra Blanca site after the Authority's scoping study had already ruled out Sierra Blanca as scientifically unsuitable. The Waste Authority selected the site after the Authority's own scoping study had ruled Sierra Blanca out as scientifically unsuitable; that is to say a geologically active area; that is to say an earthquake area. Communities near the preferred site have had enough political clout to keep the dump out, but Sierra Blanca--already the site of the largest sewage sludge project in our country--was not so fortunate. The Waste Authority does a scoping study. The scoping study says this is not scientifically suitable, but the Waste Authority goes ahead and chooses this community. Why not? Disproportionately poor, disproportionately Latino. This is an issue of environmental justice. The residents of Sierra Blanca, Hudspeth County and west Texas do not want this dump. Last night, some of my colleagues talked about the election of one official, and they said the people want this dump. This candidate was elected, and he was for it. But twenty surrounding counties and 13 nearby cities have passed resolutions against it. And no city or county in west Texas supports it. Nor would any Senator in this Chamber want this waste dump site built in their backyard. I doubt whether any Senator in this Chamber has ever been faced with this. These waste dump sites are not put where Senators live. They are put in the communities disproportionately of color, disproportionately low-income. This is a debate about environmental justice in our country.