Flint has brought the issue of environmental justice to the fore in the 2016 race.

In recent weeks, BNR and other progressive outlets have raised concerns about a 1998 bill co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders to dump nuclear waste on a low-income Latino community in Sierra Blanca, Texas. The bill was fiercely opposed by progressive icon Paul Wellstone and environmental activists and became a point of contention in the 2004 presidential primary between Howard Dean and John Kerry.

In May of 2003, Democratic strategist Jim Farrell wrote a Nation article in which he assailed Dean’s support for the Sierra Blanca bill pushed by Bernie Sanders:

Dean advocated sending nuclear waste from his state to the poor, mostly Hispanic town of Sierra Blanca, Texas. Wellstone called the proposal “blatant environmental injustice” and fought to delay the measure in the Senate. It ultimately passed but was later determined unsafe.

Interestingly, the same Jim Farrell went on to become the Nevada state director for the Sanders presidential campaign, but left suddenly in November of 2015. According to a campaign spokesman, he had “a family issue come up and is moving on.”

There is no indication that Sierra Blanca was a factor, but the fact that the issue is gaining traction on the left raises questions. There is also a question of whether Tad Devine, a top Sanders adviser and former Kerry senior strategist, was instrumental in John Kerry’s criticism of Dean on Sierra Blanca.

Either way, the story is picking up steam.


Bernie Sanders made a cold political calculation in 1998 that affected the lives of hundreds of poor, powerless people half a country away. He did it because it would benefit his affluent, politically engaged constituency, and, in turn, benefit him.

Daily Kos:

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.”

People’s View:

Fighting the passage of bill H.R. 629 in the senate, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) spoke on the matter in great length and detail. In short, it was a case of environmental injustice. Despite the findings of the consultants that Sierra Blanca was not a good site due to its “complex geology” and also a history of earthquakes in the past due to tectonic faults in El Paso and Hudspeth counties, the Waste Authority still went ahead and picked the site because the people living there would be least likely to resist or make a fuss about it, since the majority of the residents are Spanish-speaking and poor.

More from Daily Kos:

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 protesters revealed, he chose the political expedient route.

BNR’s original article:

Sierra Blanca is home to a large Latino population with an average income of $8,000. Last year, Politifact called the assertion that Bernie “cosponsored the bill and actively ushered it through Congress” largely accurate.

Conclusion from the People’s View:

A factoid one should note here was that at this time, the governor for whom the TLLRWDA was working was none other than George W. Bush. So, despite all that has happened to select the nuclear waste site, what was the course of action taken by Bernie Sanders? He feigned ignorance. Instead of acknowledging the environmental injustice that was going on, he washed his hands clean of any responsibility for that.

To date, the national media have failed to mention Sierra Blanca – with the notable exception of Joy Reid:

This is not a small issue. BNR has endorsed Hillary Clinton and has actively defended her against character attacks. We believe in many of the positions that Bernie Sanders advocates but we also believe in fundamental fairness. As progressive Democrats, we categorically reject the evidence-free innuendo and insinuation about Hillary’s integrity, while letting Bernie Sanders get a free pass on central questions of social justice.