TEXAS AG DEPARTMENT and NUCLEAR WASTE

Billboard in Deaf Smith County

This is the first post on PHIT’s oral interviews with Texas Department of Agriculture Hightower years( 1983-1991).  The goal of the TDA was to create an agricultural economic environment that would deliver food that was safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the planet, and would allow the family farmer and family rancher a decent living.

One of the Hightower’s administration’s longer lasting impacts for Texas was the TDA’s fight against the federal Department of Energy’s designation of Deaf Smith County as a national nuclear waste dump.  Stopping a high level nuclear waste dump planned sited directly over the Ogallala Aquifer seemed like a no-brainer and the TDA assisted Deaf Smithians in fighting it.

Possible Dump Sites

Deaf Smith County is the number one farm county in the state.  The landscape in this panhandle county is dotted with grain elevators and cattle feed yards.  In summer, green fields of sugar beets, wheat, corn, sorghum and vegetables are irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, the nations’ largest underground water supply.  Firms in area include Frito-Lay, Holly Sugar, and Arrowhead Mills.

Yet, the Department of Energy, tasked with the problem of finding a storage dump for nuclear waste, picked Deaf Smith County, Yucca Flats, Nevada, and Hanford, Washington. 

The plan was to inject the radioactive waste deep underground below the Ogallala via pipes that went through the Ogallala.  Major processing firms based in Deaf Smith were already planning to move, because of the fear of possible contamination, mere rumors of which would spell consumer doom for their products.  This, remember, was just a few years after Three Mile Island and historically, very soon, Chernobyl will implode.

The DOE had to make a decision by 1991. But Deaf Smith County didn’t want anything to do with it.  Duh!

Gary Keith talked to PHIT about his involvement with that particular inane episode.

Gary Keith had contributed articles to the Texas Observer when Hightower was editor.  He had been involved in Hightower’s Railroad Commission run.  Although he left the state to be a professor up north, he wanted to get back to Texas, so he applied for a position at the House Study Group at the Texas legislature but, before that could happen,  Hightower’s people plucked him off the waiver wire.  He was recruited to work for the TDA in 1985. 

  One of his early chores at TDA was to respond to the nuclear waste dump proposal.  State agencies don’t generally get involved in these sorts of issues and generally just rubber-stamp the federal proposal.  But Hightower’s people thought they were supposed to protect the agricultural community and that included protecting water safety and promoting the availability of non-radioactive land.  This is a prime example of the uniqueness of the TDA and why PHIT is collecting these stories. 

Official survey

By law, the DOE is supposed to survey the community about community support, but the DOE is rather lax about such things and the TDA acquired a grant for the DOE to conduct that community survey.  Gary Keith described the process:  “We put state money into it… when I say state money, what I mean is that our money came indirectly came from DOE.  DOE was required to to engage with state and local entities. So DOE gave a grant to the governor’s office. The governor was Mark White and White knew that since this was a big agricultural area, there were big agricultural issues here and, and his guy Steve Frishman gave a grant to Hightower. So that is what we lived off of… this grant that came via DOE. Mark White, and Frishman had to publicly be neutral. But he was a supporter of us. He wanted us to do as much as we could. And then boom, White is defeated by Clements. And Clements stripped our money away.  So that was the end of the project. But at about that same time, DOE designated Yucca Flats, Nevada, and so we were off the hook.” 

“But it was a run for two to three years.  Julie Brody…her field was community psychology… so she did surveys of residents. And then I did work more on the ground.”

The TDA couldn’t exactly do the organizing against the waste dump, but they could provide information and coordination and forums for discussions.  So they assisted the local groups who had experience organizing against Pantex.

Gary Keith:   “So it was, you know….you’re doing stuff that follows up on the earlier work that people did… Tani Adams had been active in battling against the expansion of Pantex. So she didn’t start from scratch either.   There was an organization in place that, you know… you never want to have to keep doing something… but  they did the Pantex  work, and then lo and behold, along comes the high level nuclear waste possibility. So they geared up again, with some of the same people, same organizations.   But some were new— one was STAND- Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping. And then there was the Nuclear Waste Task Force. So we had those local organizations that would have their meetings and we did what we could to support them. I brought in Scott Denman of the Safe Energy Community Council out of Washington DC.   We did a workshop with the local groups in Amarillo on how to work the media.

‘You all be media advocates.’”

Just say No

“We came up with a slogan, I can’t remember who did it, but it was at the same time that GSD& M was doing their Don’t Mess with Texas. Thing that we came up with was Don’t Waste Texas.”

The story however is never-ending as Texas continues its dance with the federals on the issue of nuclear disposal. Yucca Flats eventually opted out of being the waste disposal for the country.  The United States is still looking for a place to dump its high-level radioactive trash.  And they still have their eyes on Texas.  In 2014, a proposal was floated for a dump site in Loving or Howard County.

Rick Perry defeated Hightower in 1990, and went on to become Governor of Texas.  As Governor, Perry presided over the expedited permitting of a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility in Andrews County, in the Texas Panhandle. Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who in 1995 acquired Waste Control Specialists was a huge contributor to Perry in all his campaigns. Simmons’ new company wanted to dump low-level radioactive waste.  The permitting was nasty and lengthy.  Four major aquifers flow under the site in Andrews County; the Ogallala Aquifer flows 14 feet below the lowest extremity of the excavated nuclear waste disposal pit.  But Simmons and Perry won that battle.

Oh, for the old TDA, the TDA that thought protecting agriculture meant protecting the safety of the Texas agricultural land.

PHIT New Project

Hightower Campaign Poster

  The Hightower Years

Farms on Fire

The Texas Camelot

PHIT is beginning a new oral history project.  The project title is still a work in progress, but the subject matter is pretty solid.  We are collecting participant stories on the impact that the Texas Department of Agriculture made on state and national policies during the years that Jim Hightower was Commissioner.  Those years were 1983-1991.

Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, Jim Mattox, and Garry Mauro victorious

The 1980s was the high-water mark for progressive politics in the state of Texas.  In 1983, Ann Richards, Garry Mauro, Jim Mattox and Jim Hightower, all politically progressive, were elected to state-wide office.  In a glorious moment of celebration, the four them walked arm and arm up Congress Avenue to get inaugurated.

In the years since, Ann Richards has been the subject of a biography.  Molly Ivins is celebrated in a play.  Mauro and Mattox ran more prestigious agencies and received more subsequent press attention.

Hightower was elected to two terms of office at the Texas Department of Agriculture.  In those eight years, Hightower, and an amazing team of activists and policy analysts that he recruited and enabled, created a legacy of agricultural achievements that created models the pattern for the rest of the country.    

Yet his legacy has been mostly neglected and his successors at the TDA have virtually written Hightower and his achievements out of history.

PHIT has begun an oral history project to recover that history.  And an incredible history it is.  This, my friends, is the PHIT mission statement.  To collect and preserve and to tell the story of the neglected and under-represented segments of Texas history.

Willie Nelson and Jim Hightower

Hightower came into office in the midst of the most severe agricultural credit crisis since the Great Depression.  The family farm and the family ranch was facing extinction.  

Reagan, the Farm Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture all were working avidly and gleefully to increase the average size of the farm in order to make it more “efficient and productive.”  And they were more than willing to sacrifice the family farm for massive exports and cheap cattle.

The Texas TDA became the focal point of opposition to that strategy.  The Texas TDA battled the Farm Bureau, battled the USDA, battled the Reagan-Bush administration.

The mission statement of the Texas TDA was to create an agricultural environment that would be safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the earth and would permit the family farmer and rancher an opportunity to make a profit.

In response to the death of farmworkers due to pesticide exposure, the TDA established the nation’s first pesticide application regulations.

The TDA created the first official state organic produce regulations and produced the first official organic certification stamp.  The federal government was forced to respond to this initiative by creating its own national standards.

The TDA battled the Department of Energy when it wanted to create a nuclear dump site in Deaf Smith County, the most valuable agricultural land in Texas.

Taste of Texas

The TDA helped Texas farmers diversify by creating effective marketing.  They supported the fledging wine industry with professional marketing and championed local herbs and local flower industry.  They helped promote a Christmas tree industry, helped develop a Texas blueberry industry, an export mushroom operation.  Texas produced zero pinto beans until the TDA helped a panhandle farmer start marketing them.

They helped create coop farms, spread farmer’s markets throughout Texas.

They advocated for national farm bills to control production and guarantee fair prices for farmers.

The fledging wind industry was hatched in the TDA halls.

The list could go  on.

PHIT is currently conducting oral interviews to collect the TDA participant stories.  In this Blog, we will present highlights of those interviews.

Eventually, we will begin work on a documentary.

Documentaries cost money

So save your pennies and nickels, because PHIT will, by the end of this year, set up a Gofund me site, and we will be asking for donations and selling coffee mugs, and T-shirts, and maybe even some of the lovely and quirky Texas craft souvenirs that TDA sponsored in the good old days.