It was Al Gore's promise to ``protect the environment'' that sent them through the roof.
Three activists from Northeast Ohio-based chapters of Citizen Action came to Gore's stump speech yesterday at Ohio State University in their continuing quest to get the vice president to shut down the Waste Technologies Industries incinerator in East Liverpool.
Expecting Gore to dodge them as he had on previous occasions, the protesters disrupted the speech the moment the presidential contender brought up his environmental record.
Waving smuggled-in signs, Jennifer O'Donnell, Akron-area program director, and Amy Ryder and Michael Gutierrez, of the Cleveland chapter, shouted, ``What about WTI?'' and ``Keep your promises'' before security intervened.
``Let's hear it for free speech,'' Gore responded, as the protesters were lead away.
It's just the latest chapter in the unlikely battle of Gore vs. the environmentalists. The WTI incinerator is built on an Ohio River floodplain, 300 feet from a neighborhood in a valley where the smoke sometimes lingers and 1,000 feet from a school.
Gore suggested during the 1992 campaign, and promised shortly after he was elected, he would delay the incinerator from operating until tests were done about its impact on the area.
The plant began burning toxic waste in 1993. The Clinton administration says it can't shut down the plant because it lacks proof that it is causing problems, despite a 1997 study that the area has a ``strikingly high'' cancer mortality rate.
Opponents had promised civil disobedience this week at Gore's campaign headquarters in New Hampshire. The protests never materialized, but the group met with a member of Gore's campaign staff who gave them a letter promising an independent ombudsman would be appointed to hold public hearings on the issue.
O'Donnell and Ryder said they doubted the proposal meant anything, considering the vice president's record on keeping promises.
The duo managed to get back into the speech after promising no further disruptions. Gore told the crowd he would be glad to meet with the protesters afterward.
After it was over, they waited for about 20 minutes without seeing Gore or a member of his entourage. ``I guess thats his M.O.,'' O'Donnell said, before deciding their wait was for naught and leaving.
When Gore finally emerged later to greet stragglers and reporters, he said he had met with one protester, whom he did not identify.
Some weren't pleased about what has become an OSU tradition. In October 1996, members of the College Republicans disrupted a Clinton speech at St. John Arena. Members of the president's national security team were mercilessly heckled during a live CNN event on Iraq at the same venue in February 1998.
``It's just distracting,'' said Mara Leventhal, an OSU English major from Beachwood. ``But I guess you have to expect that sort of thing at a gathering with thousands of people.''