In Toxic Ohio Town, Angry Residents Would Rather Vote for Martin Sheen
by Jason Vest
Special to SpeakOut.com
March 3, 2000
EAST LIVERPOOL, OHIO, Mar. 3 -- A goodly number of citizens in this small, fading industrial town don't have a great deal of faith in the vice president of the United States.
But as the president stood trial for a cause they hold dear, they do trust and esteem the president. Or, more precisely, the man who plays the president on TV -- actor Martin Sheen, who, in 1992 went on trial with 32 local citizens after they had all been arrested for protesting Waste Technologies Industries' toxic waste incinerator, sited a mere 400 yards from an elementary school.
At a 1992 campaign stop in Weirton, West Virginia, Al Gore said he found the situation "unbelievable," and promised the citizens he'd fight to stop it. In December of 1992, during the Bush-Clinton transition, he vowed the facility wouldn't be burning any waste on his watch.
Eight years later, Gore hasn't ever been back, and the incinerator's burning at full bore. Which is why some here wish they could vote for Sheen, or even his West Wing character, President Josiah Bartlet, in next Tuesday's Ohio Primary.
Indeed, says Sandy Estell, even though President Bartlet is more realpolitk than Sheen, "we'd be better off with President Bartlet."
She fumes as she sits in the parlor of her 1894 house with friends Becky Ammon and Betty Tobin. They watch the perpetual plume of smoke belching vaporized toxic waste from the WTI smokestack just across the way.
"I remember," she sighs ruefully with the irked resignation of one who's been had by grifter, "watching Al Gore sign a 'No WTI' poster in 1992."
Estell's eldest son comes through the kitchen door. He has grim news: "You can add another name to your cancer list." There's a new cancer case in the neighborhood: a three-year-old toddler. (The cancer rates in East Liverpool are 40 percent higher than the national average.)
Ammon wonders if Gore is aware of the high rate, let alone the precise location of East Liverpool. "I sent him a map, and then I sent one to Tipper, too -- you know how husbands hate to look at maps," Ammon says, her tone the epitome of patient Midwestern sweetness.
Estell chimes in that her husband has entertained the notion of not just sending the Inventor of the Internet a map, but an email with a picture of the WTI plant and a promise for a $1000 contribution "as soon as he keeps his promise."
In politics, the true professional counts on short memories and even shorter attention spans. In East Liverpool, the citizens work to make sure Gore's reputation as avenging environmental archangel is contextualized by this case study in vacillation and prevarication. At their vanguard is Terri Swearingen, a wife, mother and nurse whose efforts have garnered her everything from environmental activism awards to arrests to lawsuits. "It would be so much easier if Al Gore would just keep his promise and let me get back to having a life," she laughs.
"What's so disappointing," Swearingen says, "is that people think politicians will do or say anything to get elected, but not only did we think he'd be true to his word when he was campaigning, his post-election promise during the transition made us think that too. I'll never forget the night of December 7, 1992, when I came home and my husband had an early fax copy of the New York Times article, where Gore was saying there would be no test burn, and that nothing would happen at least until the General Accounting Office investigated. I couldn't even get through it, because I was crying tears of happiness. Al Gore was my hero, he was like the knight in shining armor, come to rescue 400 little kids in an elementary school who didn't deserve to have this stuff dumped on them."
But despite Gore's comments, the incinerator began operating -- ostensibly because a spiteful Bush Administration approved its permit at the last moment. Since then, Gore has claimed his hands are tied. While the GAO did investigate, it didn't finish its probe until 1994 -- and while it investigated, the Administration let the plant operate.
All this bureaucratic foot-dragging has engendered a deep feeling of betrayal. "I think there's a good argument that they could act if they wanted -- there have been similar cases where the government has stepped in and stopped this," says Swearingen.
After a federal court ruled in 1993 that the incinerator couldn't begin operating until a dioxin impact risk analysis had been conducted, she thought the court's ruling would provide some impetus or cover for the administration to act. It didn't. The EPA hasn't been much help either. "The former EPA regional administrator told me that as a human being, he didn't believe in his heart that an incinerator should be so close to a school, but that his job as a regulator was different from his being a human being, she said."
Swearingen and others believe that beyond the environmental issues, the incinerator highlights another major problem: money in politics.
After the 1992 election, many here were hard-pressed to understand why the Clinton Administration backed off it's rhetoric about the incinerator; when research revealed that one of the incinerator's original underwriters was Little Rock financier Jackson Stephens -- a $100,000 Clinton-Gore donor who also gave the campaign a $3.5 million line of credit, and who also donated to the Bush campaign -- suddenly, the rationale became much clearer.
And in a state corruption investigation that ended with multiple guilty convictions last year, a lobbyist with ties to Senator George Voinovich's brother who had been working for WTI was convicted for bribing officials of the state's North Ohio Valley Air Authority. Of particular interest to activists in East Liverpool was the deposition of a convicted co-conspirator in the case, who told prosecutors he and another NOVAA official had been pressured to be lax in oversight of the WTI incinerator.
While the residents here have little faith left in Gore, they still continue to dog him; at a recent rally at Ohio State, a handful of protesters assailed the vice president, who deftly deflected dealing with the issue by applauding the joys of the first amendment, implicitly encouraging the assembled students to shout down the protesters, which they did.
Residents take heart that Bill Bradley has mentioned the incinerator both in public and on his website, but the former Senator from New Jersey has yet to show up. No one's holding their breath on the Republicans.
Which leaves them with Martin Sheen. "He's come back many times, which is inspiring for us," says Becky Tobin, a local judge's wife who's been an anti-incinerator activist since the early 1980's. "When Joy Allison died of breast cancer at 54 in 1998 -- she was a farmer just across the river from the plant who raised all her own food -- he came back for her funeral. And he walked the farm with her husband Elbert afterwards. That meant a lot."
Jason Vest is the Washington correspondent for The Village Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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