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Toxic waste activists plan Gore office protest

        

January 28, 2000

By T.C. Brown
Cleveland Plain Dealer

COLUMBUS -- Several Ohio Valley residents intend to confront Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire this weekend over what they say is Goreís broken 1992 promise to delay a hazardous waste incinerator built adjacent to a school in eastern Ohio.

The residents, who said Gore didnít respond to their request for a meeting in Washington this month, also said they would resort to nonviolent civil disobedience at Goreís campaign headquarters in Manchester, N.H., on Monday if he ignores them again.

The residents sent a letter to Gore yesterday asking to talk about the Waste Technologies Industries plant in East Liverpool, Ohio, which began burning toxic waste in 1993.

The letter, signed by a coalition of 26 Ohio and New England environmental organizations, included the signatures of Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal whistleblower, and actor Martin Sheen, who plays the president on televisionís "West Wing" and who has been arrested twice while protesting against WTI.

Kathleen Begala, a spokeswoman for the Gore campaign, said yesterday that the vice presidentís schedule was too crowded for him to meet with the group. However, she said, someone from the campaign would be available to discuss the issue.

In December 1992, then Vice President-elect Gore promised to stop any test burn at the newly constructed $140 million plant until the General Accounting Office finished investigating the permitting process, ownership and safety questions. The test-burn permit was granted, however, by the outgoing Bush administration; the GAO probe was not completed until 1994.

In the letter to Gore, critics say former Bush U.S. EPA Administrator William Reilly and other EPA officials told them the Clinton/Gore team failed to formally communicate its position on stopping the test burn. Reilly could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The opponents note in their letter that the plantís operating permit expired in 1995, and they claim a number of fires, explosions and toxic releases have occurred at the site. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said it knew of one explosion and some fires and spills, none resulting in harm to the environment or injuries to residents or employees.

The Ohio EPA is in the process of renewing WTIís expired operating permit. Meanwhile, the law allows the plant to burn waste because it applied for a new permit before the 1995 expiration, said Frank Popotnik, an Ohio EPA supervisor.

"Itís taken awhile. They [WTI] havenít been rushed to get approval," said Popotnik, adding that there is no statutory deadline for approving a permit.

WTI officials did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

The plant was built next to the Ohio River, 1,000 feet from a 400-student elementary school and 300 feet from a neighborhood in a valley prone to air inversions that can drive a smokestack plume back toward the ground.

Leading the delegation of Ohio Valley residents to New Hampshire will be Terri Swearingen, of Chester, W.Va., and East Liverpool resident Alonzo Spencer, who have battled the plant for many years.

"You live in hope. We feel we have to do this," Spencer said.

"We will sit there in a peaceful way until he agrees to meet with us," Swearingen said. "We want to ask him why he has not researched the law to see what options he has." She said federal law allows the government to stop the plant because of permit problems and safety concerns.