An ad misleads when it claims that Sen. Bernie Sanders “helped turn neighborhoods like ours into a toxic waste dumping ground.” Sanders did support a bill that could have resulted in nuclear waste being placed near a poor, minority town in Texas, but the state ultimately rejected that location.
As a member of the House in 1997, Bernie Sanders co-sponsored a bill that created a compact between Texas, Maine and his home state of Vermont to allow for the two Northeastern states to transport low-level radioactive waste to Texas for disposal.
The site initially eyed for disposal was just outside Sierra Blanca, a small, mostly Hispanic, poor town on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal prompted protest by environmental activists and some members of Congress — and, years later, it became a line of attack against Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
But a short ad on Facebook attacking Sanders on the issue ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary omits context and misleads in its quick retelling of the matter.
The ad, 15 seconds in length and posted by the Big Tent Project, a group spending hundreds of thousands to oppose Sanders, erroneously leaves the impression that the town at the center of the case was indeed used for the nuclear waste disposal.
“Bernie Sanders’ Vermont: Clear and clean,” the narrator says. “Because of his bill to send nuclear waste to minority communities, he helped turn neighborhoods like ours into a toxic-waste dumping ground. But on Saturday, you get a chance to clean this up. Say no to Bernie Sanders.”
A citation on screen cites a 2016 Daily Kos story about the Sierra Blanca case.
In reality, a Texas environmental commission ultimately rejected the Sierra Blanca site and another location was later selected. The ad is being pushed in South Carolina before its Democratic primary Feb. 29 and comes ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday contests, which include Texas.
Some background: Legislation passed by Congress in the 1980s gave states the ability to select sites for disposing low-level radioactive waste — such as waste “generated by nuclear power plants, industry, hospitals” — and encouraged them to form multi-state compacts to manage the waste. Today, most states in the country are part of such a compact, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, though the Texas facility is the only new dump opened since the 1980s compact legislation was passed.
In Texas, the Sierra Blanca site was chosen by a state authority and was pursued despite objections by residents and concerns by environmental groups. Some in Congress forcefully rejected the compact because of the expected location at the time, too.
Democratic Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, for example, said the site “was chosen because it was perceived that the people of Sierra Blanca lack the political power to be able to do something to protect their neighborhood; that it was okay to take this garbage from across the United States and put it into a poor neighborhood that would not be able to resist.” Likewise, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota said, “This is a fight for communities all across the country who do not have the political clout to keep this pollution out.”
While Sanders’ team has previously pointed out that the legislation supported by Sanders didn’t name the Sierra Blanca site specifically, as Snopes reported in 2018, the planned location was widely known when the legislation was before Congress.
Speaking in the House in 1997 and 1998, Sanders said he opposed nuclear power but supported the measure as the “safest way of disposing of low-level radioactive waste” and cited support from Democrats and Republicans in the three states.
Sanders in 1998: “If I had my druthers, I would close down every nuclear power plant in America as quickly as we safely can. But the issue today is something different. The reality is, we have nuclear power plants. We have universities and hospitals that are using nuclear power. The environmental question today, therefore, is how do we get rid of that low-level waste in the safest possible way? In my view, that is what this legislation is about. I think the evidence is pretty clear that Texas is in fact the best location to get rid of this waste. The last point that I would make is there is nowhere in this legislation that talks about a specific site. Nowhere will we find that. We are not voting on a site. That decision is left to the authorities and the people of the State of Texas.”
Asked about the issue now, a Sanders campaign spokesman pointed us to a statement from his 2016 campaign that said: “We were assured that regulators would not pick a site that would be harmful to the environment or local communities in Texas. That’s exactly what happened. The good news is that the Sierra Blanca site was rejected and none of this nuclear waste was ever sent there. That was the right decision to make. There is no question that there was a real environmental justice aspect to the Sierra Blanca site.”
It’s worth noting that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate voted in favor of the compact. It’s also worth noting, in the context of the 2020 election, that former Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, was among those who did, too.
President Bill Clinton signed the compact into law in September 1998. The next month, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission rejected the Sierra Blanca site. Maine subsequently dropped out of the compact.
Just as it didn’t technically vote on the Sierra Blanca site, Congress didn’t have a say on that eventual location. Voters in Andrews County, Texas — very narrowly — opted in 2009 to approve bonds for the company to build the facility.
Operating since 2012, the Waste Control Specialists site is one of four active disposal sites in the country (another is in South Carolina), according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In addition to accepting waste from Vermont, the facility can also accept “up to 30%” of its disposal capacity from other states.
The bill creating the compact supported by Sanders also created an administrative board, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission. Some — including another Big Tent ad — have criticized the fact that Sanders’ wife served on the commission and got paid for it. Tax returns posted by the Sanders campaign show Jane Sanders collected $8,475 in 2013 for her role and $4,900 in 2014. She is no longer named on the commission’s website, but was listed as an alternate commissioner as recently as December 2018. Her LinkedIn profile lists her as having served from 2012 to 2015.
Sanders critics are likely to continue their attacks over his approval of the compact despite the concerns over Sierra Blanca, but it ignores necessary context and misleads voters to simply claim he “helped turn neighborhoods like ours into a toxic-waste dumping ground.”
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