Background on WTI
History of the facility
East Liverpool is a small town on the Ohio River in an economically depressed area. The incinerator was first proposed in 1979 and marketed to the community as a way to bring jobs to East Liverpool.
The WTI facility is one of the world's largest capacity hazardous waste incinerators. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia converge. It is in a flood plain and over a high-yielding aquifer, and was built on an already-polluted site owned by the Columbiana County Port Authority. There are homes within 320 feet of the facility and a 400-pupil elementary school on a hill just 1100 feet from, and slightly below, the stack.
The facility is in a valley that experiences air inversions, which trap the air and inhibit the normal rise of fog and pollution, as often as two of every three days. In short, it is about the worst place you could imagine siting a giant hazardous waste facility.
The original permits for the facility were granted in 1983, when Ohio had virtually no siting criteria for hazardous waste facilities and a rubber-stamp facility siting board. In 1984, Ohio's hazardous waste laws were changed to include siting criteria, which direct that such facilities cannot be build within 2,000 feet of homes or schools or in floodplains.
Air emissions from the facility include mercury, dioxins, and lead, all of which pose long-term health threats, particularly to the school children. In addition, a serious accident at WTI that involved the Ohio River could affect every town and city downriver from East Liverpool and on into the Mississippi.Ownership and permitting questions
There were numerous irregularities and probable illegalities in the permit process for WTI. Ownership questions were quite complex and appear to have been improperly handled by both the state and federal EPA. First, although the county port authority owned the land for the facility, it was never listed on the permit. U.S. EPA later admitted this was wrong, but appeared to view it as a minor oversight. The company's current owner, Von Roll, purchased the land from the port authority in the early '90's.
There were originally four investors in the facility. In 1990, the current owner — Von Roll America, Inc., a subsidiary of Swiss-based Von Roll AG —bought out the other partners, without properly informing the regulatory authorities or seeking the required permit modification. Subsequent questions about possibly deceptive changes in ownership led to a two-year investigation by Ohio's Attorney General at the time, Lee Fisher. In 1993 Fisher reported that "WTI's changes of ownership have resulted in unlawful installation and operation of the facility by the current owner, in violation of the three Ohio provisions of law which prohibit ownership and operation without a permit."
Scientists opposed to the project raised numerous technical deficiencies with the permit, including an incomplete analysis of the risks involved and inadequate air modeling. At a court hearing in 1992, various experts, including Dr. David Ozonoff of the Boston University School of Public Health, Dr. Herbert Needleman, an authority on the health effects of lead exposure to children, and Dr. Michael McCawley, an air pollution expert from the State University of West Virginia, all testified about the inherent dangers of the siting of this facility.Risk assessment
In 1997, the U.S. EPA released a risk assessment for WTI that set out 27 possible accident scenarios that could threaten the lives of the children in the nearby elementary school.
Under a new federal rule that went in effect in the summer of 1999, facilities must explain to the public what could ahppen if any of 140 toxic chemicals is released in an accidental spill, leak, explosion or fire. The goal of the law is to save lives and prevent pollution by spurring companies to prevent hazards.
WTI's risk management plan outlines both a worst-case and more-likely accident scenarios for the incinerator.
The more-likely accident scenarios for toxic chemicals at the plant, as calculated by WTI, estmate that the area within 0.1 and 0.7 mile would be affected. East Elementary School is 0.2 miles from WTI, and the nearest home is 0.06 miles away. WTI has not made public an estimated distance for the worst-case scenario.
In additon, a serious accident at WTI that involved the Ohio River could affect every town and city downriver from East Liverpool and on into the Mississippi.Clinton/Gore campaign promises
On a campaign stop in Weirton, West Virginia, July, 1992, Gore said: "The very idea of putting WTI in a flood plain, you know it's just unbelievable to me. But the longer range larger answer to this question is to reduce the amount of garbage and waste we are producing, re-engineer our processes to be more efficient and recycle all of the waste that we possibly can so we don't need these incinerators.... I'll tell you this, a Clinton-Gore administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We'll be on your side for a change instead of the side of the garbage generators, the way (previous presidents) have been."
Gore seemed to affirm the campaign pledge in a press release on December 7, 1992: "Serious questions concerning the safety of an East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation, Vice-President-elect Al Gore said today, announcing that he and his colleagues...are asking the General Accounting Office for a full investigation. And, Gore said, the new Clinton-Gore Administration would not issue the plant a test burn permit until these questions are answered.
"For the safety and health of local residents rightfully concerned about the impact of this incinerator on their families and their future, a thorough investigation is urgently needed. Too many questions remain unanswered about the impact of this incinerator and the process by which it was approved," said Gore.
Within weeks, however, Clinton and Gore caved in.
In the meantime, Greenpeace and Ohio Valley residents sought a preliminary injunction to stop the facility's test burn. The permit for the test burn had been granted in the final days of the Bush administration. In March, 1993, U.S. District Judge Ann Aldrich approved the facility's eight-day test burn but suspended further operation based on public health concerns. This decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on March 16. The Clinton administration responded that it had no choice but to bow to the court's ruling. But, as reported in the New York Times, agency officials and legal experts said that the administration had the authority to lift the permit before testing as soon as it took office, before the court's ruling.
The facility then began commercial operation. In May, 1997, it received its full commercial operating license from U.S. EPA.
WTI failed its test burn, releasing four times more mercury than permitted. Children at the elementary school were tested for mercury in their urine prior to WTI operation and again 6 months after the facility started burning as part of a state health study. In the first test, 69% of the children tested negative; the follow-up test found that nearly the same number tested positive.Subsequent developments
In December, 1997, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that Von Roll was paying employees of the Northern Ohio Valley Air Authority, the local regulatory agency responsible for monitoring air emissions from the facility. The Beacon also reported that the stack monitor that was supposed to supply emissions data directly to the Ohio EPA had not worked since the facility started burning; the Ohio EPA ultimately negotiated a $126,000 fine.
There have been criminal investigations of Von Roll management, including the conviction of three company executives in Switzerland related to the company’s 1991 sales of weapons parts to Iraq. There are also serious environmental violations at the company’s Swiss facilities.
Two citizens groups, Save Our County and the Tri-State Environmental Council, together have waged a long battle against the construction and operation of the facility.