If there are any verities left in this cockamamie world of ours they might be that in New Mexico voters have never really cottoned to candidates who they see as playing dirty, and that no one ever got very far trusting the federal government to keep its promises when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear waste.
It seems at the moment that the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad is about to dig out a new area at WIPP extending the half-mile deep nuclear waste storage facility by a considerable amount, and basically breaking decades-long assurances and understandings on the part of the public that WIPP was, indeed, a pilot project, and would never be used for high-level waste or expanded in any way.
The Albuquerque mayoral election has become particularly rank, owning to almost unprecedented foul play. One of the candidates and his political party are known for what used to be called “dirty tricks” in the Nixon-Watergate era, spinning ugly and groundless accusations to defame opponents and defraud voters and taxpayers. The Republican Party is still the master of such unethical shenanigans. And their candidate for mayor, Dan Lewis, has been slinging cow pies and other offal at Tim Keller for weeks. Lewis has accused Keller of being soft on sex crime, and lately he’s tried to make Keller out to be something of a slave owner, running a low-wage sweat shop in Cambodia and taking away union jobs from Americans. Keller’s Digital Divide Data nonprofit hired landmine victims in Cambodia to do data entry tasks at more than the going hourly rate there. And union jobs? What data entry level job is unionized in the United States? None that I can think of. And now the far-right Albuquerque Journal has run a front-page editorial disguised as a news story on the sex crime senate bills that Keller signed, and virtually every sex crime expert supported, citing “differences” in “safeguards” between 2011 and 2013 versions of the bill — a non-story if I ever saw one.
Will those tactics work in the long run, or will they backfire? Keller is still far ahead in the polls less than two weeks out from the November 14 election day. If history has trustworthy lessons to teach us, it might just be about New Mexico voters’ reaction to a dirty smear campaign.
Take the senatorial election of 1982 between Republican astronaut incumbent Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and New Mexico attorney general Jeff Bingaman, both native New Mexicans from around Silver City. Schmitt had won his seat in 1976 by beating Senator Joseph Montoya. And as the last man to have stepped foot on the moon, Schmitt was a world-famous astronaut and shoo-in for re-election. Things were going well for him, as I remember, until some national Republican political operatives started slinging all kinds of nasty mud at Bingaman. I never got the impression that the smearing was Schmitt’s idea. But it wasn’t a close race with Schmitt ahead by as much as 20 points early on. After the dirty tricks appeared, however, it turned into something of a rout, with Bingaman winning 53.8 percent of the vote. I always attributed Schmitt’s defeat to those national foul-play consultants who didn’t have the foggiest idea about New Mexico political culture. Schmitt’s big loss came as a surprise to many.
But it’s no surprise to a lot of us that the feds would go back on their promises about WIPP. Under a hard-won agreement signed in 1992 called The Land Withdrawal Act, the amount of plutonium-saturated soil, tools, clothing, and other debris that could be stored in WIPP was strictly limited, and the hazardous level of waste was too. Only “low-level” “transuranic” waste would go to WIPP, not the really hot stuff that languishes at DOE nuclear weapon sites around the country and is stored at commercial nuclear energy sites as well. New Mexicans were promised, almost on a stack of bibles, that WIPP would never hold high-level nuclear waste and would never hold more than175,565 cubic meters of low-level waste agreed to in l992. Even that low-level waste is dangerous, as was seen in 2014 when a canister exploded in the WIPP salt mine, sending plutonium radiation up a ventilator shaft and out in the air, coming perilously close to Carlsbad. Numerous workers were also contaminated. The exploding canister kept WIPP closed for more than two years. So this is not just a matter of jargon and definitions. If low-level waste is dangerous, imagine how much worse it would have been if high-level plutonium waste was released into the atmosphere.
As Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a nuclear watchdog NGO, told the Santa Fe New Mexican last month, “In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, literally thousands of people in New Mexico participated in congressional hearings around what became the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act … The bad news is that people will probably have to get involved again.”
Hancock is referring to the potential political fallout from a report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office in September that gave the go-ahead to the DOE to explore the legislative, regulatory, and fiscal issues surrounding expanding WIPP and allowing the facility to store the highest and most dangerous levels of nuclear waste, which might even include waste from Japan. So much for the stack of bibles!
It might seem like apples and oranges to link broken promises over WIPP with political lies infecting Albuquerque’s mayoral election this year. But both are a form of dishonor. One of them dishonors what everyone thought in the 1990s was a sacred vow governing a set of limitations at WIPP that made it possible to reach an agreement between local opponents of WIPP and the federal government. The other dishonors the truth by spinning malicious tall tales for political advantage, tales that are subtle and preposterous enough for the city’s conservative newspaper to get on the bandwagon and make something out of nothing on the front page. Dishonor, disappointment, disillusionment — these are the three sorrowful sisters of politics gone rotten and governance too spoiled to trust.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it