TUCUMCARI — Ed Hughs is a rancher and agricultural engineer but these days carries around a briefcase stuffed with legal documents and government contracts.

The documents detail the federal government’s plans to drill boreholes into the earth, including one on ranch land outside this small town on the eastern edge of New Mexico. The U.S. Department of Energy hopes these narrow, granite cavities could be used to bury some of the nation’s growing stockpile of nuclear waste. Hughs is one of the leaders of the opposition in rural Quay County, an area that once appeared to welcome the federal project as an economic boon but now has grown staunchly against it.

“These folks, they face drought, they face uncertain markets, they face fire, they face hail and they are not scared of much,” Hughs said. “But this is completely over the top. If something happens, if there is a spill, our [agriculture] industry is done. And I think our industry would be done if the borehole even got started.”