INTERVIEWEE: Gary Oliver (GO)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: March 31, 2001
LOCATION: Marfa, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REEL: 2144 and 2145
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name’s David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s March 31, 2001, and we’re in Marfa at the home of Gary Oliver, who has done many things in his life, but I think some of the things that are most relevant here is he’s been a political cartoonist and has taken some funny shots at many topics, but a number of them environmental. And I also wanted to mention that he’s been involved in some direct activity to try and stop the nuclear waste dump proposals for West Texas. At this point, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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GO: My pleasure.
DT: Let’s start at the beginning and I’m wondering if you can tell us what your first introduction was to environmental issues?
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GO: I’ve—I’ve—my adult life, I’d say I’ve been left of center, even before I thought about political issues, if I did happen to think about them. And I wasn’t thinking about them as a young man. I ran a—a night club in Austin and was thinking more along the lines of music and parties. Although along with all my friends, I was in Vietnam—Vietnam demonstrations all of my college years. I went to the University of Texas from ’65 to ’70, right in the middle of the escalation of the war. But after I left Austin, I started—I spent some time in South America and started doing lots of hiking there, getting into more outdoor activities which has a way of bringing a person into—into
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thinking about environmental things. The first big issue that hit home anywhere near me was the—was the states trying to dump nuclear waste down into the place I eventually settled down here. And they began almost at the same time that I came here. I was bicycling to Alaska in 1982, after I came back from South America—I’d spent about five years bumming around South and Central America and—and through a series of chances, I ended up in Marfa after I finished my tour and it was ’84 when the state came to Hudspeth County the first time trying to put a nuclear dump in. So the very first cartoon I drew for the newspaper here was about a nuclear waste dump.
DT: And is that where most of our activity went into fighting the nuclear waste dump drawing these cartoons, or did you do some speaking or marching or other kinds of activities?
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GO: I wasn’t—in the ‘80’s, I wasn’t doing regular political cartoons. I was trying to market a book about—I’d done about—about traveling in South America and I found myself in a shack that needed a lot of work, I found—I found I was having to learn some construction skills. Something I’d never dealt with. And it was the—it—and the dump went away. They left—they were run out of their first place in Hudspeth County. They went to South Texas for a few years and the next time I heard about a nuclear dump, they were—the state was involved in a lawsuit filed against them by the county of El Paso, which was resolved in January of ’91. That was the year that the judge found the state was out of order in every parameter in trying to site—site a dump against all its own sitting criteria along the Rio Grande. And that’s when, that—it’s a—was an odd
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numbered year, so the Legislature met right after the judge threw the state out, reacted in pique, not uncommon with the Texas Legislature and cut them—cut—said they would pass a law putting the dump in Sierra Blanca or in—then it was Fort Hancock. And instead of fighting them in Federal court, El Paso cut a deal. El Paso had just spent four million dollars beating them. And unfortunately decided to caught—cut and run. And so the state drew a box around Sierra Blanca and that fight began. They drew a box in which three hundred seventy square miles, that means by longitude and latitude on a map. They designated in—in—in a House bill, the only legal place to build a nuclear waste dump in Texas. That law is still into—in effect. This legislature is—will try to overturn it so they can dump on somebody else. So, I didn’t get into activism until the Sierra Blanca end of the—of the nuclear story of Texas. And I think the first demonstration I actually went into was—was mid-‘90’s.
DT: And what was that demonstration?
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GO: It was blocking a—blocking an international bridge in Del Rio. All the—the area along the Rio Grande was up in arms about this dump because it was sixteen miles from the Rio Grande. It—it—of course, the people—the—the southern Rio Grande is a—is a very poor area, as is southern Presidio County. And folks felt rather dumped on before people talked to them about nuclear waste. So, there were resolutions in almost every town, every city along the river. All the way to Brownsville, against the idea of this dump. And Del Rio was particularly vocal about it. That we were joining hands, blocking the international bridge there with the mayors of both Acuna and Del Rio. City, county commissioners.
DT: Yes. Okay, well, lets finish going through this sort of timeline that you had. And then we’ll talk about just your personal issues there.
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GO: Sure. Okay.
DT: You were talking about blocking the bridge between Del Rio and Acuna?
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GO: Right. I think that was ’96, the beginning of ’96. And before that, I’d been doing a bit of writing in newspapers. I’d been—I’d been—I’d drawn so many cartoons on that subject by that time that—that and the sludge dump that arrived out here in ’92 that my editor would—would often call me the one issue cartoonist when I walked in. I would have to—I—I generated nuclear cartoons that had this newspaper’s name on them but I would send them all over the country to nuclear groups. Some of them I can—I alter, so I’d—to the Ward Valley people in—in California, I’d take site-specific cartoons and alter them to—so that they’d be specific for their site. I’d do the same for people in other parts of the country. So I’m—many, many nuclear groups use my stuff around the country. But I hadn’t actually been out doing demonstrations until that time. I’d just been in a lot of newspapers, both in writing and in cartooning.
DT: Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of being in some of these protests?
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GO: Well, it’s a—it—it’s one of the more fun parts of the—it’s when everybody—everybody gets together, the energy is high and of course, if it’s one like that—that one in Del Rio, where even the authorities of all the—the local towns are with you, that’s a—that’s a feeling of support you don’t get everywhere. When you demonstrate in Austin, you’re still pretty far removed from the—the people you need to reach inside the—the capital dome.
DT: Were there some cases when you protested you got a lot of opposition and harassment?
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GO: Well, I wouldn’t say so in—in West Texas—now, in—last year, I was—I was marching with New Mexico folks down towards the—the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad and I think one guy threw something out of a car. There were a few shouts from the odd vehicle because when you’re in a company town, and I guess when—in Vermont we—we marched the year before last, I think it was, into Vernon, the town where their nuclear plant is. Nobody’s throwing anything, or yelling at you, but you get a—a—a lot of negative letters appear in—in the local papers because a place where—where a big dump or a nuclear plant is, is a company town. It’s probably the big employer. And, of
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course, you’re going to get some resistance from all the people who’s living comes from that. You know the—I like the Upton Sinclair line a lot. That—that it’s almost impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends upon his not understanding it. So the most opposition is when you walk into a—into a place where people—people view their jobs as depending on—on this project. And that’s the—that’s what’s going on in Andrews right now. There’s a—there’s a lot of pressure to bring in a new industry, and this is the new industry that the powers that be have decided they wanted to bring in. A lot of forces were lining up to try and make that happen, and the few people who’ve organized a group that’s no longer together, they were pressured heavily. And that, I’m sure, when you talked to Bill Addington, you heard about how pressure appears in a little town. You know, it might be that you go into—when you go in to talk about your home or your car loan in the bank, somebody might drop a little hint in a back room with no witnesses that—that there might be problems with it, you know. Your—your employer may have words with you in some very private place—things—and it may not be a specific threat. It may be something that can be interpreted as one. But the pressure is somehow felt and people drop out or don’t—won’t be public. It can—it can be hard to be out front in a little town.
DT: Given all that pressure, how do you think it was that the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump, the proposal for it, was defeated?
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GO: Well, that—that was a seven-year project, from ’91 till October ’98 when the license was denied. And until the license went before—went—the licensing process started, that meant the draft license was accepted, which happened in, I think, it happened in the spring of ’96, it was considered a done deal. Legislators in West Texas told their—we heard it here from our legislators, that this wasn’t going to be—be—be defeated. That it was—it had too much momentum behind it. But when—but over that period of time, these guys—this—this state crew that was putting the thing together is not the—not the swiftest bunch around. They made mistake after mistake like the thing we discussed a moment ago. They’d go to a commissioner’s meeting and refer to the people living around the dump as receptors. And the commissioner’s jaws would drop.
DT: This is receptors of radiation?
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GO: That’s right. But they—they—they’d refer to the number of receptors instead of human beings who lived around the proposed facility, which wasn’t going to hurt any of those receptors. They talked about—they—they just—they had no PR skills, had no people skills. They were—they were pretty faceless characters, and—and they’d come out and they’d—they had all the money in the world, of course, to—to make slides, videos and glossies and they’d show up at commissioners meetings and all sorts of things and job projections about how much money would come from these things. And, of course, all of the opposition had—had no money. But because—because the thing stretched such a long time and because it had—it had—it attracted the attention of people all over the country because it fell into—it fell into an environmental justice parameter
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because Sierra Blanca is—has a high Mexican-American percentage. It’s a—it’s an unincorporated town. It has—it’s quite poor. It had no sewer system. You know, they just put that in since the dump was defeated. And—and the only projects that were coming in from the time that—that it was named as the site were coming in through this planning and implementation fund the utility set up and disbursed through the legislature to—to a group in Sierra Blanca that had to be set up by a law. There was no way—they had the problem—without a license, without a dump, how do you funnel money to the local politicians that you need to keep on board? The only reason they’re with you is money. Nobody—nobody is—is carrying picket signs for a nuclear waste dump because
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they think it’s such a great thing and it’s needed. They see financial reward in it. Whereas the people on the other side are motivated by something other than financial pressures. So they had—they passed a law that—that would allow money to be funneled through these guys into community projects. They built a park—is, I think a laughing stock among locals. Bill says it’s the lowest point in town and floods. They built a clinic that never opened. They built a number of things. They ran some money through and—and just as soon as the place was named, the same spring that the—the ranch for the—the—the nuclear waste dump was being bought, they were buying it, mind you, before they had a license. They also had proposed before they had a license in ’96, I think, they were ready to build a freeway interchange. And somehow that didn’t go through. That—
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that’s how much of a done deal they thought this stuff was. So these guys were, they were—they were pretty confident and they were pretty overbearing to the folks in the town and just as soon as they named that site, the sludge company shows up in Sierra Blanca, within a month of the buying of the ranch of the state taking it—taking a strong step of buying property toward putting up a dump. Well, Merco, the sludge hauler, was one of the three companies hauling New York sewage sludge out. New York had been under court order to cease and desist dumping it at sea by July 1st, 1992. They’d been doing it since the ‘20’s and they had this dead zone offshore. And they’d been trying—one company had set up between New Jersey folks and some Oklahoma folks. They tried in Oklahoma and people there took them to their Supreme Court. They were losing in the
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Supreme Court when the Sierra Blanca nuclear site was named. And so they hired an ex-water commissioner, one of the boards that preceded the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] to—to use his clout to see if they could get a permit to—to spread sewage sludge. I think it was a registration, not even a permit. And he got it through the water commission in twenty-three days. Now, the head of the water commission, Jesus Garza, told the Houston Chronicle that he’d been ordered to expedite that—that—that application because from somewhere above him because of a million, one point five million dollar grant that Merco had given to Texas Tech to set up a sludge research team. So, you have to figure that if Marfa wanted to spread its own sewage sludge, twenty-three days would not happen. You’d be
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looking at months, probably six months. Maybe—you’d be looking at a much longer time and that’s for—would be for us to spread our own miserable, little non-industrial sewage sludge. These guys were talking about two hundred tons a day, coming from New York from—from lots of heavy industry. They—what they do with the stuff up there is they cook it in what they call a digester. They get it hot to kill the bacteria and they run it through a filter. They criticized us for saying that everything was still in that sludge, you know, that went down the drain was coming to Texas. And they pointed out it went through a filter. And yeah it goes through a big filter. The filter doesn’t do much for lead, for cadmium, for mercury, for petroleum products for no end of things. And then you seal this stuff into these cars and they take them down—into these containers—they’d take them down to cars on the docks I think in Queens. I’ve got an article somewhere about the complaints in Queens about the stench on the docks there before
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they ship it across the river and put it on—put it on trains in New Jersey and send it down to Texas. That was the—that was the operation that Michael Moore’s television show, TV Nation, did a—did a segment on and—and Merco, the sludge hauler, sued them for that. Sued them for libel. And we had a—we had a five-day court—court trial in Pecos, Texas, ninety miles from here over that that was the subject of a cover story in the Texas Observer, and they, a jury of West Texans convicted Sony TriStar and I think so they were the—and Hugh Kaufman, the EPA whistle blower who brought down Reagan’s first EPA hit. He’d been called the hardest guy to fire in Washington after—after the protections they gave him—after he—he brought down that person. But—but we had a trial in Pecos in this little declining West Texas town. Lots of closed up storefronts, but a
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gigantic courthouse because of Lucius Bunton. The judge came originally from Marfa, who’s the senior judge in the western—western district court in Texas. He had the—had the pull to get this big courthouse built in a little declining town and it just so happened the fall before that the networks had—were—were doing these fleecing of America segments. Each network had something along that line and they had all pilloried this—this courthouse as an outrageous expenditure of federal money. And so a few months later, into this—into the judge’s courtroom, comes Sony TriStar as a libel defendant. Michael Moore took the stand in this case, something quite a happening in little Pecos, Texas. And the—and Hugh Kaufman, the—the EPA whistle blower who was on the tape, he’d said that—he’d made the comment that the fish in New York are being protected, the people in New York are being protected, the people in Texas are being poisoned. Something is rotten in Texas. So, anyway, that my digression into Merco.
DT: No, I’m glad you put in your vote and I might segue into talking about Mike Moore and the press’s coverage of these waste dumps and I thought this might be a good introduction to look at some of your cartoons that have lampooned a lot of these misadventures for years.
DW: Can you, before we get into the specific cartoons, what I find interesting is you are going on about cadmium, lead, you have to become a scientist even though that’s not your background and then, you have all these very depressing, these all very gloomy things. How in your mind does it got from that to a cartoon? Where do you find, dedicated to the movement, find humor when a lot of activists tend to be, even on your own side, probably a little on the gloomy and serious side. How did you…?
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GO: They—there are those. But I’ve always found humor in—in most things. That’s just—I’ve done cartoons since I was a kid and I think of things. I’ve always thought that’s a great way to both to explain an issue and to do criticism. And as far as newspapers, it just so happened I had a soapbox when—when this thing occurred. I had—I had West Texas newspapers, I’ve drawn for Hudspeth County newspaper, for instance, since the naming of the Sierra Blanca belt. They saw—they saw my cartoons in other papers and called me. That’s hundred and fifty miles from here, Dell City.
DT: The Hudspeth County Herald?
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GO: Yes, I’m their cartoonist. And at one time or the other I’d done cartoons for lots of little West Texas things. And I’ve sent them off to other papers over the years and now I’ll draw in journals like Z or High Country News, or—and, of course, the Observer.
DT: Texas Observer?
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GO: Texas Observer in Austin, yeah. And then many, many environmental groups. Some have money to pay and some don’t. But I—I always have looked—I—I see cartoons as a way to get people to follow an issue. Because that’s always been the battle with environmental things. They don’t cook. This week, for example, how much have you read in the newspaper about twenty thousand police mobilized in Germany? To run along beside—run alongside the train that’s carrying nuclear waste, cutting the—the—the protesters who are chaining themselves to every—to the track all the way along. Twenty thousand police. How big a—what—what kind of news would that be if that was happening here? That’s what happens when you move in high-level waste. Something our government is—ah—is about to start. If—if Bush, as is expected, signs the Mobile Chernobyl Bill that is likely to come up this—this spring, the one that will start moving all the high-level waste from all the reactors in the United States to Nevada, where they can’t get a license for their dump either. So they’re going to put it in a parking lot up on top of the ground until, you know, until they can get a license to put it underground. Clinton vetoed it last year. But Bush has said he would sign it. So it will be another one of those—we seem to have some horror passing every week in the early part of the Bush Administration.
DW: As an example of that, let’s say come six months from now they actually decide to put this on and you know there are Americans here that will go and chain themselves to the tracks. Knowing that is happening that week, I’d ask you to improvise like a musician, but how, if it’s possible to explain, how would you work that into humor? Would you put being an Amtrak joke with the train? How would…?
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GO: Actually, if you were chained to the track, if you were one of those guys out there, don’t you think you’d be cracking jokes to the guy next to you? What would you be doing? I can’t imagine not getting into a camaraderie with humor in something like that. We were certainly were doing it when we were marching—ah—when we are in a march or any kind of—any kind of blockade. There’s always going to be humor in those. And—and there’s—there’s going to be some way to turn that situation into a gag. I can’t think of one right now on the spot, for the train coming along. But I—I know though that everybody reads the cartoon, you know? It may—if I put some my—granted are wordy enough that a few people probably pass them along. But if I—if I got a one panel cartoon with a four or five line cut in the—in the balloon, everybody is going to read it. They may not all like it. But I’m going to make cute little characters in there. And they’re going to make, they’re going—they’re going to take, quite possibly, if it’s nuclear issues, something some politician or—or waste dumper has said, and they’re going to—they’re going ratchet it one step beyond whatever the guy said. And they’re going to show why it’s ridiculous. The person laughing at that joke has agreed with me without—without perhaps understanding that—that he’s reached a point of agreement on it.
DT: Will you tell us some of the ridiculous things you’ve drawn about? Maybe you can start with his t-shirt.
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GO: Oh this was for—this was a cartoon for the—for the folks who were fighting the PanTex operation, you know, where they disassemble warheads.
DT: That’s in Amarillo?
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GO: Just outside Amarillo. I think they’re—they’re right across the gate from the PanTex gates. That’s a scary thing if you think of—think of not only are you there in whatever protective gear you get into to—to pull out those triggers—disassemble a warhead with lots of plutonium in it, but for the safe—in case of an inadvertent explosion they work under what are called Gravel Gerties, which are tons of gravel suspended by a trap door above them. So the slightest—if there’s a concussion of any kind all that buries the whole site. What do you think the stress level is? And there’s no question that those guys are over the (inaudible). They fight about it at Andrews. Because with the aqui—aquifer shrinking has—has—irrigations has done to them what we fear big cities taking our water will do to us out here. Their aquifer (?).
DT: Please tell us about some of these cartoons you’ve drawn over the years.
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GO: Okay. Well, it would be—here’s a nuclear one, at the start(?), which of course has a couple of—a couple of little devils discussing leaks from nuclear dumps. You don’t want me to read it do you?
DT: You don’t have to.
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GO: Okay. Because that’s a big issue of the—all the dumps that leaked. And, of course, the—when the dumpers appear, they’re—they’re always giving us some sort of the gee whiz, state of the art talk on why their dump won’t, even though all the others have. And that’s—that’s the issue of geologic disposal. It has—it has a hundred percent failure record. And it has—it doesn’t matter about the rainfall. Texas—the—the law we are about to be fighting in the Texas Legislature draws the line now, instead of a box around a—a community, it—it draws a water line. It’ll only be legal to dump west of the twenty—in area of less than twenty-six inches of rainfall, which means West Texas. But Beatty, Nevada, one of the six nuclear dumps that’s now closed, had four inches of rain fall and—and radioisotopes were found over three hundred fifty feet down and off the
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reservation. Nobody know show this stuff travels. But they know it seems to leak consistently. So the leaking dumps is a—one of the angles you can hit repeatedly in nuclear waste. Corrupt politicians is another. They’re—they’re—they’re gobbledlygook spoken by—by folks using words like receptors. The—or—for instance, the—the industry term for—they have three grades of accidents, three classes at a—at a nuclear power plant. The lowest one is called an unusual event. That’s because that looks a lot better in headlines than nuclear accident at local reactor. The—the opposition, of course, has it’s own set of terms for some of them. As I said, I call them droids. But they refer to the people, I believe, actually the industry who uses this one. The folks that work in contaminated zones who come in as temp workers in places that are too hot for them to
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use their highly skilled people. They don’t want them to get their life dose, so they bring in temps. And they’re called sponges in the industry. So here have then another issue of nuclear waste, is transportation. That’s what’s going on in Germany right now. When you start moving the trucks across the country, or the trains, people start reacting. In 1997, the German farmers on the way to Gorleben were chaining their tractors together across the roads. They were actually tunneling under their own highways so that the highways wouldn’t support the weight of the trucks. And these weren’t—these weren’t hippy demonstrators. These were—these were town officials. These—these were professional people from the little towns. Students barricaded their own—them—their own schoolhouses to stop the police from using them f—as barracks. The cops had to break the doors down. And then the city cut the water and power off. The whole part
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of the country was against it’s government. It had—it played a big part in the election of the current prime minister who—who came in on an ending nuclear power platform and is now backtracking somewhat. Anyway, transportation is another issue. That it’s unsafe on the roads and it endangers people far, far from the—far, far from the place that the waste is—is generated. And the power plants and it’s eventually dumped. When Susan Currie, Health Landers and I went to Vermont in—in 1998 to oppose the compact that would bring Vermont’s nuclear waste down here, one—that was a big part of it. We followed the proposed waste route up there. Twenty four hundred miles. And we took
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note where the road was under construction, seemed dangerous, took note of truck accidents we’d see along the way. So we could tell the people at each end. And we even wrote letters to newspapers along the way to tell them what—what might be on their highway. George Bush said that the trucks might not be marked to discourage terrorists, which is another comforting thought. I’d drawn cartoons about—about supermarket and ice cream trucks and the like. The—the—the thing Steven Spielberg did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, using commercial trucks to ship—ship toxic stuff so the public won’t know what’s on the highways. The danger, of course, is—other than accidents, trucks leak too. They’re not completely radiation tight. And if you happen to be invalid, elderly, or especially pregnant and you’re held up in traffic alongside one of these or driving next to it for a long time, you’re getting a dose, you know? That may—may come back to haunt your child later on. Now this one is a recent cartoon relating to
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the—the California energy crisis. And it’s self-explanatory I think. And that has—that has to do with nukes as well, because when California deregulated, they gave a—a boatload of money to the—the utilities with nuclear power plants. I think it was just under thirty billion. The same—which utilities then divested themselves of their—their generating facilities, often to their parent companies, and—and the money took off too. Those are the same utilities that are howling bankrupt now. The ones that just got this
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massive infusion. When—when they give—when one of these bailouts, one of these pay off the nuclear plant deregulation events happens—and it’s—we’re about to get it next year—it appears as a new line on—on rate payers bills. It was originally called stranded costs to pay off the utilities for investments that were supposed to take thirty years to—to pay themselves off. But I would imagine that there are some other terms being used now because that one’s been printed in too many places. And that’s a sure sign that they’ll start changing it. As they did sludge to biosolids. We figured out what that was. And sometimes I draw for groups in the Northwest or in Canada who are dealing with forestry issues. And this was drawn during the—the—during the headwaters fight that Californians would be familiar with. Of course, we had—we played our part in it in that some Texans were in—in the Maxim Company that is trying to—to—to take out some of the old growth. And John Connelly was sitting on the board when he died, I believe. So I—I draw en—en—and then endangered species issues the same. Although, of course, we have—we have this in—in our areas as well. We have bears that just returned to Big Bend National Park after being gone for over fifty years. They were all shot. And eagles
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nearly disappeared from the Big Bend. We have a few left. But they were hunted down in the forties. And of course, we live in a—in an area where property rights is a big—is a big touchstone for a lot of people. And—and Endangered Species Act is, of course, considered negatively by folks who—who support property rights often. Not everybody. And—but I think—I have hopes for the future on that. And I think water is perhaps one of the inroads. Now you can—water used to be a big divider too. Of course all the environmentalists didn’t want it all used up, didn’t want it polluted. And were unhappy with the Law of Capture because the law in Texas is still the law it’s—the Supreme Court decided for Clay Williams and Son in the early fifties which is, whatever your pump can
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pump out of the ground on your property is yours to do with it as you please. Now, though, we have cities that are water hungry. And cities can take phenomenal amounts of water just—just thirty-five miles from Marfa is a—is a ranch, that was a failed agricultural project that has twenty wells that—that are extremely deep. They were made to—to do the revolving irrigation wheels. And these are the big ones, the—the half-mile dia—half-mile radius jobs. You know, it seems crazy, agriculture in a desert. But it’s sitting on a big bolson of water, Ryan bolson. That’s why the bought it. They tried it there. And El Paso saw that as a water ranch. And bought the ranch, which had proven—it hadn’t made it as an agriculture, but El Paso was looking for—it’s aquifer is about to run out in twenty-five years. Juarez’s water is going to run out much sooner than that. And so they bought this and—and started investigating building a pipeline, start piping huge amounts of water from here. And then they bought another ranch near Van Horn, Wild horse Ranch, to do the same. And there’s some land near Dell City that they are looking at as well. El Paso is looking at—at mining rural water, much as L.A. was how many, seventy something years ago.
DT: Do you think this might bring in some of the property rights advocates?
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GO: Well, you can already see—we have—now we have an underground water conservation district. Here we have a number of ranchers involved with that. And when our regional plan—everybody can see that the law of capture isn’t going to work against a city. You can no longer say you—you—you—if everybody has unlimited use, then there are some users that are so big that they can ru—they can drain everyone else’s aquifer. So it just is not in the rancher’s self-interest to continue being for everyone
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having unlimited use of water as long as a city has the same rights as a person does. And that’s a—that was a big line to cross. That’s been holy ground. The Law of Capture in Texas. Now they’re talking about the head of the regional board, whose a rancher, who has talked about reasonable use as a—as a standard. And of course that means some kind of board has to decide what reasonable use is. Now that—I won’t get into water law and the state, that’s a—that’s a—that’s a—that’s a big issue. The last two legislatures have dealt with it. And—and there are water districts all over the state now. A lot of them were—were killed, you probably know, in the last legislature. They were—they were—they were made—they were watered down so to speak, by a guy named Buster Brown running for the Senate Natural Resources Committee. He’d passed a comprehensive water law—water bill, Senate Bill 1, I think, two legislatures ago. But it had a loophole. His bill, of course, was to help the big folks, industry and cities. And—and the loophole that underground water conservation districts, which could be a countywide
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group, could—could form with enabling legislation and could regulate transport out of district. Well that’s not what the big guys want. They don’t want Presidio County to be able to have a board of local guys telling whoever buys a ranch here that they have to come before them to have transport, which means pipeline, water out of the district, tell them that are okay. You know, that’s not the idea. They want to come in and take all the water they want and with no local input. Because, of course, locals are going to say, no you don’t have to drain an aquifer to trash it. All you have to do is lower the level
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enough so that suspended minerals in pockets come down into it. And the—the quality of water can change. We have wonderful water here. We have ancient water. And El Paso is proposing, I think they said fifteen thousand-acre feet a year when there’s a little over—over ten times, maybe many times more than the recharge. So, of course, they are saying they are going to kill the aquifer. And they may change the—the—the guys in this case will show you a map showing that, that aquifer had—there were all kinds of dikes underground that make—that show that that aquifer is totally unconnected to the one under us, even though it’s thirty-five miles away. But I’m a little suspicious of the finds in that. We’ve noticed that when somebody comes along and wants to set up a nuclear waste dump, a geologically based one in which they’re going to dig a hole and
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let—let some kind of formation contain the waste and prevent it from getting to the water where—however deep it may be, that what they do—and they’ve got to show in court or before the environmental agency is that—that it’s impermeable. Whatever it is, it’s impermeable. Impermeable clay is what they used in Sheffield, Illinois, what they told them before they polluted their lake, their groundwater for the dump that was there trashed it. But if someone wants your water, they want to tell you the opposite. They want to tell you the recharge is great on that groundwater.
DT: You can’t do it both ways.
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GO: You can’t have it both ways, right. But there is a scientist who will tell you anything you need—there’s—somebody’s got a Ph.D. who’ll tell you that a cigarette won’t give you cancer. There are guys—there are guys who will do it. They’ll tell you anything the industry hires them to tell you. They’ll tell you that they stood up—in court…
DT: I was going to ask you if you could show us more things that are a little bit hard to believe, a little bit of a stretch and a joke.
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GO: Well, the next one is food issues.
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GO: I was a—well I was the resident beacon. I think I’ve—we have so many artists in Marfa that maybe one or two others. But this is cattle town. Giant was filmed here. This is James Dean’s last stop before his accident. And—and so vegetarians aren’t—it’s—it’s not looked on—it can look on a bit askance here and there. And, of course, last year the government okayed the irradiation of meat. This is just a gag about that. They—they’re already getting a little negative press though. And—and it seems that—they say
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there—there are some irrational fears the public seems to have in using the word irradiation with food products. Irradiation in general, but with food products particularly. You don’t see it on your spice cans. They’ve irradiated spices for years in the supermarket. And—and so they were proposing a new name. I—I’m sure I’ll be doing cartoons about it. The one that was favored in the last article that I read was cold pasteurization. As—kind of catchy, huh? So there are food issues. Of course, I draw—I draw BGH [Bovine Growth Hormone] cartoons. I draw genetic engineering…
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GO: Yeah. I draw any kind of—any kind of food additive cartoon.
DT: Do you find that you use like the personification of animals as you go through this as well? Let’s say you are going to do an irradiated food cartoon on cold pasteurization, I mean, would you mock the scientist, would you have the voices come out of the animal?
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GO: Both probably. I’ll do it all. But I do a lot of animals or roly-poly, Mr. Potato Head characters because I come—my background was—was animal funnies. The—the stuff I loved as a kid were the Uncle Scrooge Comics. I think the best comic strip ever drawn was Pogo by Walt Kelly. I’m—I’m a big fan of cutesy characters and animals in particular. I don’t—I don’t tend to use animals all the time, but I draw humans so—I draw humans that don’t look much like humans. I don’t know how I’d—I’ll hit the cold pasteurization angle yet. This is a general earth—Earth Day cartoon, just mocking that’s it’s by now commercialized, general-purpose environmental cartoon. And then, here’s another general purpose. This was an election year, of course, when it hits the economy stupid was the—was being used again as a line. So here’s a simple take on it. I think that’s…
DT: You are showing us to us, we’re interested in some of the other creative work you’ve done on behalf of conservation and I understand that you’ve taken up song writing in and playing. And I was wondering if you could play a few songs for us?
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GO: You know I was a party in the Sierra Blanca hearings? You know about that?
DT: Yeah, please tell us.
0:48:23 – 2144
GO: That’s—that when the—when the Sierra Blanca fight did come to a head—did—and the—the process through the TNRCC is that a draft license is submitted. I think they submitted nineteen of them. This bunch of characters that I started telling you about it before. You can tell that in the license itself, you have nineteen title pages, I think it is. It’s just under twenty and so they were—they were rejected, the first eighteen of them. And in ’96 that was accepted. The sixty thousand page license application, twenty-eight volumes. This is a—a—if you wonder why the average person doesn’t get into—into contesting something, I think I looked at my Encyclopedia Britannica at the time and—and it was—it might have made ten thousand pages. This is a massive piece of work, full of charts, diagrams, full of very difficult to read studies that these guys had been working on, some of the stuff, the general things, for example, they’d carried from site to site. And
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they—this was—this was the equivalent of you as a student being able to submit your—your—your test paper nineteen times and have it redlined by the teacher until you finally manage to get it right. That’s what these guys were doing. And they got the draft license approved; I think it was March, ’96, which starts the appeal process. Then—then all those who aren’t happy with that draft license being accepted, get to—get to petition for hearings. And all the activists got on the stick then and—and I think we had—we had many hundred, I forget how many—five or six hundred, at least, applications for hearings. So many that they had—they had multiple hearings at El Paso, Sierra Blanca and Alpine. We had so many in our counties that they had their own hearing here.
DT: These are public hearings? These are contested case hearings.
0:50:32 – 2144
GO: Right, and the public hearing is—it—of course, is recorded. You have a couple of administrative law judges, in this case a couple, show up, they take testimony from everybody and it’s part of the record, but there’s no guarantee that anybody ever looks at this testimony again. It lets everybody vent. And, at this same time, you get to apply for party status and that means you have to show how you’re affected by the proj—proposed project in a way the general public isn’t. And a number of—then you have another hearing, a smaller hearing, in which the judges determine who actually—who qualifies for that. And the peop—if anyone—if no one qualifies, then the license is accepted. It
0:51:17 – 2144
changes from a draft license to a permanent license. But if there—if anyone is a party—is accepted as a party, then you enter into a hearing process, a contested case hearing. This is one of the things that somebody always proposes doing away with every year in the Legislature. And we had, I believe, twenty-one parties. We had two states of Mexico applied, they were both rejected. They didn’t want any deep pockets to hire legal staffs in this case. But the city of Juarez was accepted, Greenpeace, Mexico, made it in. A number of environmental groups, folks you’d expect, like the Sierra Club made it in. Some groups you wouldn’t have heard of. And then a number of individuals, and I’m one of them, from this town. I—we had to go a hundred miles from here to testify at a hearing and—and it’s—of course, the agency was arguing that no one that lives further than ten miles away should be affected.
DT: How did you get standing?
0:52:23 – 2144
GO: I don’t know. It’s up to the judge. I came—I argued that—that a hundred miles is not very far for radiation to come for—if you’re talking about air and water transport, there’s a—I’m downstream. I’m often downwind. We have west winds a lot in West Texas. And if you want to see how far pollutants, how far matter in the air is carried, just go down and lo—in Big Bend to the Visitor Center and take a look at that—at the pollution display they have and where they say that pollution is coming from. It’s coming from Louisiana, the Gulf Coast of Texas, crossing over at Monterrey and San Luis Potosi. And, of course, Carbon one and two, which are far—it’s a much greater
0:53:11 – 2144
distance than the little hundred miles I’m talking about. But they accepted me; they accepted a number of other individuals and my county. I’m terrifically proud of—for—county actually voted money. We’re one of the poorest counties in the state. We had, I think that year, thirty percent unemployment, something really high. And they voted a few thousand dollars. We didn’t have much, but—but they fought it—they—our judge and—our county judge and our county attorney went to Sierra Blanca that day. The
0:53:46 – 2144
county attorney, Teresa Todd, I thought she had the best presentation of the day. She had—she had a tourism director there talking about how he’d been—he’d been on the phone to tourist agencies all over the state and whether or not this issue had been brought up by tourists who wanted to come to the Big Bend and he had—he had information that it—he was hearing about it from other parts of the state. We had a guy who’s brought—whose job here was to bring in—bring in industry who just, a little bit before, had people fly in and wanted to know what all that pollution was that they saw down in Big Bend on their way in, and turned around and left, saying they were coming out here because it was supposed to be a clean place. So you had exactly what these guys listened to. Economic arguments. And then she even had the—the—she called us the next contiguous county downstream from Hudspeth, which you know, there’s a corner where the counties have—meet at a right angle on the river, Presidio, Jeff Davis and you could argue Culberson, I don’t think so. Jeff Davis, Presidio and Hudspeth meet and so the—the opposition argued that we weren’t cont—we weren’t contiguous, that Jeff Davis was in between.
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And she had a witness there to counter that. She had a guy who had been a policeman when there had been a corpse found right at that point and he called all the three counties to found out who had jurisdiction. And Jeff Davis told him they had no jurisdiction on the Rio Grande. She—I was—I was—I was—I was very impressed. She went to Washington to argue against the compact. I can tell you, we don’t send local officials to Washington for much.
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GO: I mean, she’s been talking to the other library people. That’s too bad. We’re going to pay you anyway, Rick, if they don’t. Well, I’ll still have to get down there and put a sign on the door, people are driving in from three counties for this concert. You know. That’s what’s bad about it.
DT: We usually ask a few questions to close, and I thought in your case, we’d probably ask you to play a few songs afterwards if you don’t mind?
0:56:12 – 2144
GO: Uh huh.
DT: The first question we usually ask is, what do you think the major environmental challenges are? You’ve pointed out a number of them in just in what you told us and shown us in your cartoons, but are there…?
0:56:28 – 2144
GO: In the world?
DT: Well, maybe just for West Texas or things you are most intimately involved with. The top two or three challenges.
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GO: Well, the first, the one I’m most intimately associated with is nuclear, of course. And it’s—it’s at a crisis point this year. You’re—you’re seeing one end of it in Germany. I just came from New Mexico this—meeting with activists there this weekend, where they say they have all—they have the whole chain cycling. Mine uranium there, they have Los Alamos, they have reactors there and they have the dumpsites. Everything is in that state. And their own senator, Pete Domenici has just stated how we need to start relying more on nuclear power. We need to encourage more of it. And, of course, you know there’ve been no plants opened in this stat—in this country that were ordered after the Three Mile Island event in 1979. There’ve been plants that were opened afterwards but they were ordered before. That—that and then, Chernobyl after it killed the nuclear industry in this country. You can—you—if you—you try to build plants in a country where the people have some kind of free speech and right of assembly, they’re going to be out in the streets, as they are in Germany right now. You can do it in China,
0:57:55 – 2144
sure. You can do it in North Korea, yeah. And that’s exactly what our—our presidents have done. Every president since Reagan, since Three Mile Island, in other words, has gone to other countries and sold GE reactors, Bechtel nuclear technology, Westinghouse reactors. GE, by the way owns NBC and Westinghouse, at least did own CBS, if you wonder why some of this doesn’t make the news. So Clinton went to China, sold a lot of reactors. Well, in all those deals, we get the waste. They’re not going to leave weapons grade waste, the plutonium 239 that comes out of commercial reactors. They’re not going to leave that in—in—in other hands. And so the U.S. has got—once it does get a
0:58:43 – 2144
high level dump, is going to be taking waste from everywhere. It’s going to come—it’s going to come through every straight; it’s going to come through the Panama Canal. It’s going to come—countries now, even little Caribbean Islands send their little coast guard boats out to try and steer boats with waste, nuclear waste, away from their islands. You read this stuff in BBC news; you don’t read it much here. It’s a big concern and when you get away from the U.S. and it may become a big one here when they—when the stuff hits the roads. That’s certainly a big issue. The reason they need a dump, at least for commercial reactor waste, is because they—they’re running out of time on the first generation of reactors. If you start talking about twenty years with no nuclear reactors, well, they’re thirty year licenses and so they’re running out of time. And they’re now—they’re now talking up in the northeast about—about adding, about renewing those licenses. And—and a dump, however primitive, however leaky, will be touted as the—the answer, finally the answer has come to what to do with the waste. They’ll call it high
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tech, put some name on it, and use it just as justification to build a new generation of reactors. West—Westinghouse has already designed one that’s can be opened fast. The new push is to come up with one that doesn’t have a twenty year licensing and building window. They want one you can get through in three years because the movement doesn’t have time to build. They’ve discovered if you give them time, like seven years, say at Sierra Blanca, by the time you reach the final stages, people are out demonstrating. They’re blocking bridges; they’re having circus parades down Congress Avenue in Austin. You know, Bonnie Raitt is showing up in town to do a concert for them. You’ve
1:00:38 – 2144
got to get it quick. If you can site the thing, the dynamics change dramatically once the thing is open. Once you have a nuclear plant in a town then the people who can’t—can’t abide living near one either make accommodations or move away. And the people who move in are probably moving in to work. It’s something related to this new project. So the local dynamics are going to change. As far as leaks go, of course, the industry will always deny them. On the stand in the Sierra Blanca hearings, the head of the state agency testified that there were no long lasting health effects from Chernobyl. The industry still claims there were only thirty-one deaths, the guys in the explosion and the fire. That’s the international nuclear industry. They don’t accept cancer. They think the only way waste can kill you is if a drum of the stuff falls on you and breaks you in half or you drown in a vat of it.
DT: What’s your advice for the next generation?
[End of Reel #144]
DT: Let’s pick up where we left off on the first tape. I think, you’d been telling us about one of the outstanding problems we all face is the nuclear issue. And I’m curious if you have any advice for the next generation of people who might be concerned and want to do something to respond to the nuclear threat?
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GO: Well, the nuclear threat, the threat to the atmosphere the—the—in the last week or two, the threat of Bush’s CO2 reversal, the fact that we’re the only—we’re—our country is going to the next—the equivalent of the Kyoto Meeting with no national policy and our Environmental Protection Agency had asked him what she should do. She doesn’t know what brief to take and the government has no brief to give her except that she shouldn’t offend the oil and coal industry apparently. You have that; you have the threat to the food supply through—through genetically modified things. Fertilizers like sludge, hormones, no—no end of things. And—and—and globalization that allows us
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to—to import foods from places like Mexico grown with things like DDT that we’ve shipped them from Monsanto, based in St. Louis here. You know, and when I was in Vermont, they were celebrating up there the rejuvenation, the rejuvenation of the peregrine falcon, it was endangered there or was threatened the way it is here. And we often have parts of Big Bend closed down, the nesting area, part of the south rim and part of the Santa Elena Canyon are closed to tourist’s part of the year so the falcon has a chance. Well, ours is in trouble and one reason might be that right across the river, you can grow with DDT, which is what caused the problem in the first place. Whereas the
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northern—in Vermont, their falcons are doing great. Canada isn’t accepting DDT from Monsanto. So the fact that globalization is a—is a—as it’s currently constituted, is a—is a terrific threat because it means products can pass borders, money can pass through borders, but people, if they happen to be low income are—are stopped flat at borders. Globalization is about—is about a select group of things being able to pass freely from one place to another. And it’s about tribunals being set up to overcome pesky laws that individual nations set up. If we choose to not import whale meat, let’s say, or—or slave labor-produced goods, well, from somebody who’s a member of wh—of an international trade group that we’re in, they can take it to whatever tribunal overseas that and those tribunals never find against business, against commerce. They’ll call that a restraint of trade.
DT: What sort of advice to you give to people who are up against these long odds?
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GO: Well they’re always long odds. They’re always long odds. And—but we just showed in 1998, you can beat them. And everybody always tells you you can’t. They told us that, they—they—you, of course, many people lose but not everybody loses. And…
DT: Can you maybe show this to illustrate what you are talking about?
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GO: Yeah, this is, everyone’s back yard is a publishing—publication of what used to be the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. Now it’s CHEJ, I think. It was started by Lois Marie Gibbs who was driven out of Love Canal by the pollution there. And it’s about—it’s an organizing handbook they send to the people all around the country. And as you see, Sierra Blanca was a national issue. And it was a rallying point. Now when—when I find myself in another state and I—I say that I live a hundred miles below Sierra Blanca, the minute the word Sierra Blanca come out, people often cheer if I’m in a group of environmentalists. So I would tell people that you never want to listen to the folks who tell you you can’t beat the odds. That that’s just not true.
DW: Do you pay a terrible price for that, as in the case of (inaudible), you know, sometimes you do?
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GO: Well, yeah. The Sierra Blanca is a—is a strange site. You’ll hear in a couple of places that—the article I sent you that Texas Monthly wrote on Bill Addington and Susan Curry and—and me was about the different reception we got in our—our respective communities. That—that Bill—that it was always controversial in Sierra Blanca because there was money being distributed in Sierra Blanca and a lot of people were intimidated. There was a power structure that was supporting a dump, there was no money spread here, though our county judge at the time did say he was asked by the—one of the agency—state agency fellows if—if getting some of those planning and implementation funds might help here. And bless his heart, he showed him the door. So the—and—and the difference in the two communities is that both Susan and I were given Chamber of Commerce awards in our town, for fighting the Sierra Blanca dump. They made both of us Citizen of the Year. And you don’t—in a little West Texas cattle towns, you just don’t ever hear of—of awards being given for environmental reasons but then—not Chamber of Commerce awards.
DW: How about reprisals from the companies’ whose names you plaster the cartoons with?
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GO: I—I’m not big time enough. I’m not on their radar screen. The—the nuclear fellows knew me. As a matter of fact, I find that when—when in Vermont, for instance, I—on that march I was pulled off it one day to go to a hearing with some people who had called—had filed a complaint or asked a question that called a hearing with the—the Vermont Nuclear Authority and representatives of Vermont Nuclear—Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. So they dragged—they wanted the Texans to come in and respond to the stuff that their state administrators were saying. And they—all the guys from the plant came up to me after the hearing to tell me they had my cartoons plastered all over the wall. When—the first day of the hearings here when—I sat in the thing drawing a cartoon and drew the—it was at that time, Men In—Men In Black was a big movie so I parodied the movie poster and had Men in Denial across the top and had the two top guys in the nuclear agency drawn. And one of them was just—just rather rotund. He came up looking over my shoulder. The judges came, everybody stopped to gather around the cartoon in the courtroom during breaks. And all the secretaries from this—the low level agency in Austin showed up. Some of them wanted signed versions of the cartoons. They told me they had the cartoons all over their offices. You can bet they loved seeing their stuffed shirt bosses being parodied there.
DT: Do you think that making people laugh changes their minds?
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GO: Changes the other side’s minds? That’s hard to say. You—you can—people’s minds do—do change. I went to a work shop in Vermont that was about nuclear whistle blowers and those were—were nuclear engineers, safety engineers, guys who—whose whole education was based around atomic power, who believed that it could be built safely. But they found things that—that were improperly built. They found something that wasn’t to the—what wasn’t safe in their estimation. They reported it and were squelched and when they went around channels, their careers were trashed. And most of them had stories of—of losing families, being pariahs in their town, relatives cutting them off. Some people go through—go through incredible things to do what they think is right. So those people’s minds changed. They didn’t perhaps decide that nuclear power was unsafe, but they certainly made a decision about nuclear power as it exists now, i.e., the low bidder form of nuclear power could be safer.
DT: I hope that your work encourages people to change their mind. I had one last question and then maybe we can ask you to play some music, and that’s, I understood that you have a place out in Terlingua Ranch, the Vista Huevo…
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GO: Huevo Vista.
DT: Huevo Vista. Excuse me. I was wondering if you could tell me about that place and what appeals to you about that spot in the outdoors or perhaps other spots, you’ve traveled so much, maybe there are other ones.
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GO: Oh, there are many places. Of course, I love Big Bend out here, both the state park and the national park. And this is, Terlingua Ranch is a big, big subdivided ranch. It’s two hundred thousand acres north and west of Big Bend National Park. And I’m lucky enough to be a partner with another guy in—in eighty acres, way out at the western most extremity, a real—real isolated place. I’m lucky because it’s a hundred miles from here and I don’t drive a car so it’s—it’s quite a bicycle ride down there. The other guy is the one who found it. He was a—he was a biologist and geologist teaching out here and he—he identified a really spectacular piece of country that has Tenahas, which are water holes, all around it. Some—some gorgeous rock formations and canyons and a lovely ridge with about a three hundred degree view. And there’s—in that area, the—the cattle aren’t being run on the ranches next door so there are no fences, it’s open land, which is a treat here in Texas where have an awful lot of fences. So I get down there when I can find a way to go there since I don’t—I have poor vision and don’t—have never driven a car.
DT: Tell me about that, as somebody who has poor vision, how do you experience the outdoors?
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GO: Well, the outdoors…
DT: The outdoors has smells and sounds…
0:11:17 – 2145
GO: Certainly. All those things matter. That’s one of the big things in Big Bend that it can be—the nearest motor can be a long, long way away. At my place, you have to climb the highest ridge above it to look to see the glow of a light from behind a mou—a mountain some miles away. That’s the—there’s no light anywhere around. It’s very dark at night and it’s very quiet, until the occasional plane passes. It’s a beautiful place.
DT: Thanks for telling us about it. Can we break and…
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GO: Okay. Well this one—just so—I’ll do a couple that I pick and then a couple that I strum so that the levels will at least be consistent. This one is, instead of being about any particular environmental thing, and many of those are parodies, some of them are tunes you’ll know that I’ve adapted to fit an issue. This one is just so standard you’ll think you’ve heard it before. But, and—and I don’t think any of my songs have titles. So anyway, here’s a—here’s one from I think last year.
End of reel 2145
End of interview with Gary Oliver