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WTI concerns raised again

        

September 25, 2000

Jo Ann Bobby Gilbert
Columbiana County Morning Journal

EAST LIVERPOOL -- The construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in the East End has created a rift between those who support it and those who oppose it for nearly two decades.

During a public hearing Saturday regarding the facility, everyone involved did agree on one point: They want the issue put to rest, one way or another.

However, the method of closure still wasn't agreed upon, with opponents still demanding that Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) be closed and torn down, and company officials maintaining the incinerator has passed every scrutiny and court case with flying colors and should now be allowed to operate unhindered.

The Environmental Protection Agency National Ombudsman Hearing was called at the request of the acting chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Reps. James Traficant and Dennis Kucinich, with Traficant hosting.

An ombudsman investigation was begun earlier this year in regard to concerns and allegations voiced about the incinerator, and, on June 30, a list of nine "working allegations" was released.

At Saturday's hearing, those nine allegations were addressed, with Ombudsman Robert Martin hearing comments from opponents of the facility, company officials, city officials and EPA leaders.

Despite exhaustive studies, including a $2 million risk assessment, and numerous court cases which have indicated no health risk from the incinerator, opponents have continued to call for its closure, citing violations beginning with the ownership of the firm.

Saturday, Traficant called Ombudsman Martin, "one of the most objective and qualified people in the valley," and Martin said he is "trying to move this case along as quickly as I can."

The first panel to speak was composed of citizens, including local residents Richard Wolf, Alonzo Spencer, Virgil Reynolds and Sandy Estell, as well as Chester, W.Va. resident Terri Swearingen; Jennifer O'Donnell of the Ohio Citizen Action Network; Ashley Schannauer, former Pittsburgh solicitor; and Mick Harrison, an attorney for Greenlaw.

Spencer spoke first, offering what has become the mantra for opponents to the facility.

"It is our belief that WTI is an illegal, unsafe, unwanted and unneeded facility. We want it shut down, torn down and removed from the community ... before we lose any more lives from emissions coming from its stack," he advised.

Spencer also called for prosecution of those "accountable for this whole sordid mess," advising Martin, "What you hear today will be more than enough to support this request."

He also made allegations that company officials had met secretly with officials of the now-defunct North Ohio Valley Air Authority, which was the primary monitoring agency of WTI at one time.

O'Donnell offered a rundown of why she believes the facility should be shut down, citing "numerous and serious violations" as spelled out in a an alleged letter from EPA Director Christopher Jones to company President Fred Sigg.

After O'Donnell chastised the Ohio EPA for not being in attendance at Saturday's hearing, Traficant said, "I want to know why they weren't here," and said he wants to confer with both the state and federal agencies on the issue.

Throughout the hearing, Traficant interjected several times, saying he wanted more information on allegations brought forth by opponents.

Among the requests he made included data from regional health care facilities about the rates of asthma and cancer in children, as well as information comparing the incidents of those diseases as well as other health problems in the Ohio River area to the Mahoning River Watershed, which also was a heavy industrialized area.

Traficant also called for a "snapshot" by the Army Corps of Engineers on water quality near the incinerator for the periods between 1982 and 1992 and 1992 and 2000 after Schannauer gave a lengthy dialogue on why he believes the risk assessment reached its favorable conclusions by excluding risks and creating more accepting standards.

A map of cancer victims in and around the city's East End which has been compiled for some time by Spencer was presented at the hearing, with Estell becoming emotional as she related the number of residents who have died from cancer.

Traficant asked that the map and the list of names she presented be placed into the permanent record.

When company officials convened on the panel, the questions became much more technical and fact-based, with community relations Director Mike Parkes pointing out the company thought the hearing was to address allegations against the EPA and not the company and admitted, "We are unsure of our role here. It's not my place to defend the actions of the EPA but I feel the government in general and the EPA have been unfair to WTI."

He and other company members said WTI has been subjected to numerous standards that their business competitors have not had to withstand, including the three-year risk assessment.

This "double standard" was a prevailing theme among company members as they answered each working allegation individually. David Case, executive director of the Environmental Technology Council, said he works for several other incineration companies and said that many of the issues being addressed Saturday had already been decided by the Environmental Board of Review and in courtrooms reaching as high as the Supreme Court.

"Once the appeals are done and the permits are done, the facility should be allowed to rely on this. The permit should not be opened over and over again," Case said.

As company members listed some of the independent studies which were done locally, Traficant asked to have that data included in the record, including the vegetable study undertaken several years ago by the Tilateral Environmental Committee.

At times obviously dismayed at hearing the same allegations again and again, Sigg posed his own question to the ombudsman and Traficant.

"Why would the EPA issue a permit that causes all these problems?" Sigg asked. "These are not new issues. Why we keep getting asked the same questions and expect different answers is beyond me."

Traficant said later in the hearing, "It is time for some closure. It's time to decide what's right and wrong. The EPA is probaby getting tired of the fight, and I want to get it over with."

He asked where WTI employees live, and was told between 60 and 70 percent live in the city, the surrounding townships or a few miles away in Chester.

Traficant also asked whether the company monitors its employees' health, with safety technician Randy Sadler answering that each employee undergoes an extensive physical annually, including X-rays and blood work, and that their airborne exposure is regularly monitored, with no adverse exposures found to date.

The company has never received an OSHA citation for health-related offenses nor been cited for reckless endangerment, according to Sadler, in response to a question by Traficant, who also asked for employee health records to be provided, if possible.

Once the information from Saturday's hearing is compiled and analyzed, the ombudsman will issue findings and recommendations, although Martin pointed out that he does not make decisions, nor are his recommendations binding.