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January 13, 2000

THE ELECTORATE

Gore's '92 Promise on Incinerator Propels Ohio Demonstrators in '00


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    By FRANCIS X. CLINES

    EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio, Jan. 10 -- An old press release from Vice President-elect Al Gore, issued in the first flush of victory in 1992, is being preserved here like the Magna Carta.

    And seven years after he issued that release pledging to block the local hazardous-waste incinerator that has become a national environmental cause, the same determined protesters who believed Mr. Gore in 1992 and have dogged him ever since -- staging protests and suffering arrests -- are on his trail once more as he heads for Ohio's presidential primary on March 7.

    A pledge to halt a hazardous-waste incinerator proves haunting.


    "Maybe he's developed a bit of courage," said Terri Swearingen, a registered nurse and barbed opponent of the toxic chemical waste incinerator, which vents steadily into the air, day after day, just 1,100 feet from an elementary school attended by 400 children in this humble Ohio River Valley town.

    "This is Gore's broken promise," said Ms. Swearingen, a who has been arrested nine times and who was carried off from one sit-in inside the White House two months into the Clinton-Gore administration, after she found the waste incinerator going into operation despite campaign pledges.

    "You promised!" she and her colleagues have shouted at the Vice President across Mr. Gore's seven years in office even as the administration insisted it discovered that it was legally unable to block the plant's opening because in the final weeks of the Bush administration approval was granted to test the plant's furnace.

    "Read your book!" critics have shouted, reminding Mr. Gore, the environmentalist author, of his assertion that he is the nonpareil political watchdog on the issue.

    In response to questions, Mr. Gore's office said this week that "as promised, we looked exhaustively" at the issue and found the initial test permit from the Bush administration "can't be revoked unless we can prove it violated health and safety standards." At least two reviews could find no violations, said Melissa Bonney Ratcliff, a spokeswoman for the vice president.

    A month after the Clinton-Gore victory in 1992, Mr. Gore, a leading critic of incineration, promised that the new administration would prevent the plant from opening until Congress investigated its safety and how it had got federal approval.

    "The very idea of putting it in a flood plain, you know, it's just unbelievable to me," candidate Gore had said of the incinerator when he campaigned in July 1992 in nearby Weirton, W. Va.

    "We'll be on your side for a change," he promised opponents.

    In the third month of the new administration, the plant, operated by Waste Technologies Industries, was permitted to begin commercial operation. While Mr. Gore has maintained the incinerator could not be blocked, environmentalists insist it could have been stopped if the Clinton-Gore team had resolved to do so after the election.

    Ms. Swearingen and other opponents have been fighting the regional commercial incinerator, from proposal to construction, across the past 20 years, turning a mayor out of office here over the issue. In now pointing to the Ohio primary, they are determined to show that a candidate's pledge that goes around, comes around.

    "We are reminding Mr. Gore of his promise as he runs on his own," said Alonzo Spencer, a retired steel worker who is galvanizing his Save Our County protest group once more at this fresh opportunity to single out the incinerator.

    In advance of the primary, a dozen organizations, including the environmental group Greenpeace and Ms. Swearingen's Tri-State Environmental Council, have requested a meeting about the incinerator with Vice President Gore, promising there will be no new civil-disobedience disruptions, at least not "at or during this meeting."

    "We are now feeling that the health effects we first warned about back then are starting to come true," Mr. Spencer said, referring to a state health study in 1997 that reported "strikingly higher" cancer mortality rates for East Liverpool than for the state and nation.

    The local cancer mortality rate for the four years through 1995 was 235.0 per 100,000, compared with 182.6 for the state and 172.2 for the nation. Mr. Spencer agrees the causes of cancer can be complex and long running, but he insists that opening the plant so close to a school in a troubled region of old steel, foundry and pottery industries "exacerbated an already high-risk situation." A detailed study has been started to search for causal evidence beyond the data, with no definitive tie yet reported to the incinerator.

    The plant annually burns 63,000 tons of hazardous waste, including lead, mercury and hundreds of other toxic chemicals. Gases and particles from the smokestack, including dioxin, are supposed to be within permissible federal limits, but opponents note that the state fined the plant $126,000 for violations of air monitoring requirements.

    The plant's proximity to East Elementary School has been underlined in various studies as a potentially risky situation. A state law adopted soon after the incinerator began operating required at least 2,000 feet of separation between schools or homes and any new incinerators, almost double the safety margin here.

    As the primary approaches, critics are emphasizing that the incinerator has been operating on an interim basis ever since the initial federal permit expired in 1995. So this is the time to press Mr. Gore over the issue once more and try to embarrass him if necessary, according to the opposition, whose prowess is well tested.

    "I've already talked about this with Bill Bradley," the tireless Ms. Swearingen said of the former New Jersey senator who is challenging the vice president in the primary. "We are always looking for that one person to take this seriously."

    Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace's campaign against toxic wastes, speculated that Mr. Gore was "assuming the environmental vote is in his pocket."

    "We went from great hope to great disappointment," Mr. Hind said of the Clinton-Gore team's handling of the East Liverpool issue, in which, he said, they moved from opposition as candidates to their administration's joining the company in defense of the plant in a subsequent lawsuit.

    Steady as the plume pouring from the incinerator stack, the politics of the March 7 primary are being pursued by small-town environmentalists with a memory for pledges past.

    "This was their very first environmental promise," Ms. Swearingen said, protecting that 1992 press release. "And it was their first promise broken."



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