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A Paler Shade of Green

By Mary McGrory

Sunday, March 19, 2000; Page B01

The toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, burns on in the middle of a rundown neighborhood on a flood plain, just 1,100 feet from an elementary school attended by 400 pupils. The question is why.

In 1992, vice presidential candidate Al Gore, busing through the area with Bill Clinton, called the siting of the Waste Technologies Industries plant "just unbelievable" and promised that it would not be operating in a Clinton-Gore administration. As vice president-elect, Gore issued a press release in which he said he would block the WTI incinerator's opening until environmental and health safety questions were answered.

But a permit for a test burn was issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Gore says it was an eleventh-hour decision by the outgoing Bush EPA, and there's nothing that can be done about it now.

Nothing? After seven years of citizen protests, sit-ins, lawsuits, investigations, reviews and claims that the toxic emissions have increased cancer rates and caused unacceptably high levels of mercury in the neighborhood's schoolchildren?

For a man running for the most powerful job on the planet, it is a curious projection of powerlessness--particularly from a candidate who is so proudly green. EPA Administrator Carol Browner says the vice president is quite right: The Clinton-Gore administration is simply observing the law and the scientific findings.

A General Accounting Office report in 1994 said that the EPA has discretionary authority to close down a dangerous plant. But after finding various violations, the agency chose to fine WTI rather than close it down.

It is, to say the least, awkward for the green candidate to appear to tolerate this environmental abomination, one that has attracted national attention thanks to the exertions of Greenpeace and an exceptionally active local protest group called the Tri-State Environmental Council.

Gore seemed to appreciate the potentially toxic political emissions from East Liverpool. On the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, after Greenpeace threatened a civil disobedience demonstration at his Manchester headquarters, he asked for talks. Dan Sakura, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, spoke for him. A bargain was struck: The demonstrations were called off in return for yet another review of the WTI plant by the EPA's ombudsman. The review will not be completed until the end of June.

Will George W. Bush, whose own environmental record is so dismal that it is not even on the greens' chart, make a preemptive strike on the environment? Judging by his recent conduct, he will. Bush's personal belief that John McCain, whose sister is a breast cancer survivor, is in favor of breast cancer research, did not deter his campaign from running an ad that wrongly asserted (on the basis of one negative vote on an omnibus bill) that McCain is opposed to funding for such research.

No one should think for a moment that Bush would even pause at his own lamentable record on the environment, which cannot compare with Gore's. Bush knows that shamelessness is just as good as a good record. What is to stop him from making a surprise sympathy call on dingy East Liverpool? Gore doubtless has been reminded that Bush the Elder, who was no great friend of the Earth, boldly hijacked the environmental issue in 1988 from Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Bush did a photo-op dash around Boston Harbor in a speedboat to point out the pollution--a problem Gov. Dukakis was working to solve at the time.

Bush knows that Gore could devour him in a debate, so he must cash in on Gore's tactical blunders, of which the smoldering cauldron in East Liverpool is an outstanding example.

The protesters will not be holding their breath for the new report. They are already active. Gore has to reckon with the redoubtable Terri Swearingen, a 43-year-old registered nurse who lives in Chester, W.Va., across the river from the plant. She is the driving force of the Tri-State Environmental Council. Her attitude toward the vice president was not improved last week. She went to a Gore rally at Moon Area High School in nearby Pennsylvania, and was thrown out. A man who said he was Gore's Pennsylvania state director barred the door. He unfurled a WTI story from the New York Times by Francis X. Clines which reported, accurately, that Swearingen had been arrested nine times for her opposition activities. She and seven council buddies retreated to the street and retrieved their "Remember Your Promise" signs from their van. Another Gore official talked to a policeman, and the council members were all sent packing, although sign carriers for other causes were admitted to the rally.

Swearingen is strangely hopeful all the same: "Gore is running for president, and he's on his own. He knows he has to protect our children." Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is supporting Gore, but not the plant, and he thinks his candidate needs to come to terms with the issue. "He needs to be made aware of the urgency of this matter," he said. "He is in jeopardy from it."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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