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James Drew: Ohio incinerator was 'first broken promise'

January 30, 2000

Jim Drew
EAST LIVERPOOL, O. - On Dec. 7, 1992, Vice President-elect Al Gore said that when he and Bill Clinton took office, their administration would not issue the permit needed to allow test burns at a hazardous waste incinerator built here along the Ohio River.

"Until all questions concerning compliance with state and federal law have been answered, it doesn't make any sense to grant any permit," Mr. Gore said in a press release. "The potential impact on the people of this community - on their health, on their children's health, on the investment they have made in their homes and businesses - is too great to proceed without study and caution."

But in April, 1993, the U.S. EPA approved the commercial operation of the Waste Technologies Industries incinerator. It began to burn hazardous waste that includes lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals about 300 feet from the closest home and 1,100 feet from an elementary school.

Many environmentalists refer to that decision as "Al Gore's first broken promise" - a painful one given that they believed the author of Earth in the Balance would reverse Reagan-Bush policies.

Last Dec. 13, Terri Swearingen, a registered nurse who lives in Chester, W. Va., across the river from the incinerator, snuck into a Christmas party that Mr. Gore attended in Cleveland. She carried a package with her that included a copy of Mr. Gore's Dec. 7, 1992, press release and pictures of the WTI incinerator. With a Secret Service agent at her side and another behind her, Ms. Swearingen said she grasped Mr. Gore's right hand with both of her hands.

"I said, 'Vice President Gore, can we still count on you to protect the children of East Liverpool from WTI?' He said, 'I will do something about that.' Then it registered what this was and he backed off. He said, 'Let me explain something' and then tripped over his words. He said, 'It was done under the Bush administration. Our hands were tied legally.' "

Ms. Swearingen said she told Mr. Gore that the General Accounting Office in 1994 concluded that the government had the discretion to revoke WTI's permit.

"I said, 'Vice President Gore, Cuba is willing to go to war to protect one child. What are you willing to do to protect 400?'

"Then a wall came down," Ms. Swearingen recalled. "I was no longer talking to a politician. I was talking to a human being. There was a pause. It seemed long. We looked at each other. He said, 'I'll look into this.' He turned around and handed off the package I gave to him, but he turned around and said to the person with the package, 'You hang on to that for me and give it back.' "

Three weeks later Ms. Swearingen and several supporters, including actor Martin Sheen, sent a letter to Mr. Gore requesting a meeting in Washington about WTI. They assured him there would be no civil disobedience.

In a Jan. 13 article in the New York Times, a spokesman for Mr. Gore said "as promised, we looked exhaustively" at the WTI issue and discovered that the initial test permit from the Bush administration "can't be revoked unless we can prove it violated health and safety standards." But Ms. Swearingen said those claims are untrue.

For example, the "Clinton-Gore flip-flop" occurred three years before the U.S. EPA issued a risk assessment that found at least 27 possible scenarios that could threaten the lives of the children who attend the elementary school. It also occurred before WTI was fined $126,100 for a faulty air-monitoring system in the smokestack.

Mr. Gore's office has told environmentalists that Mr. Gore does not have time to meet with the East Liverpool area residents about WTI.

And so to make it more convenient for Mr. Gore, they will be in New Hampshire this weekend, hoping to speak with the vice president before Tuesday's primary. If Mr. Gore doesn't want to talk there, he will have plenty of time to present his side of the story before the March 7 primary in Ohio.

Or perhaps he'll let his friend do the talking. In 1996 President Clinton proclaimed: "I want an America in the year 2000 where no child should have to live near a toxic waste dump, where no parent should have to worry about the safety of a child's glass of water, and no neighborhood should be put in harm's way by pollution from a nearby factory."

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.

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