by Jennifer O’Donnell
Ohio Citizen Action
Fall - Winter 1999-2000 issue
EAST LIVERPOOL -- Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush, rivals for the presidency, have something important in common. They each have financial ties to Jackson Stephens, the financier of the world largest commercial hazardous waste incinerator, Waste Technologies Incorporated (WTI), in East Liverpool.
On the bank of the Ohio River, where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia converge, the incinerator emits lead, mercury and dioxin into the air. On a hill slightly below the top of the incinerator's stack, 1,100 feet away, 400 children attend East Elementary School. Hundreds of homes sit 320 feet from the facility.
Terri Swearingen of the Tri-State Environmental Council is a long-time leader in the fight against the incinerator. She said that, while there have been changes in the facility's ownership and changes in elected officials' positions, "There's one thing that has never changed — the distance between WTI and the school, and WTI and the homes."
On December 7, 1992, between the presidential election and the inauguration, Vice President-elect Al Gore said, "Until all questions concerning compliance with state and federal law have been answered, it doesn't make sense to grant any permit [to WTI]."
Incinerator opponents, who had been raising the same issues for more than a decade, thought that at last their message had been heard.
Within weeks, however, the incoming administration reversed itself:
According to unconfirmed reports from well-placed sources, Clinton’s EPA Administrator-designate, Carol Browner, called Valdus Adamkus, director of the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes office. She asked Adamkus to approve WTI’s initial ‘test burn’ before January 20, so the incoming Clinton Administration would not have to take responsibility for the decision.
In early January, Adamkus gave WTI the green light for the test burn.
The Clinton-Gore administration took office on January 20. At that point, Browner had the authority to revoke the test burn permit, according to U.S. EPA officials and legal experts. She took no action.
In February, Browner recused herself from any involvement in WTI decisions, citing a technicality that observers called "far-fetched."
When later questioned about his reversal at a Nebraska meeting, Gore said, "...the decisions relating to this particular permit were made principally and almost exclusively during the last administration and that incurred certain legal obligations toward the company that had invested tens of millions of dollars."
Gore did not say whose investments he felt obliged to guarantee. The original lead investor in the WTI project was billionaire Jackson Stephens. Although Stephens sold his proprietary interest in WTI in 1990, he arranged the financing for the incinerator through the Union Bank of Switzerland the same year.
Stephens was also the biggest financial backer of the Clinton-Gore campaign. The Little Rock investment banker had supported Clinton in each of his campaigns for governor, raised $100,000 in contributions for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, and extended a $3.5 million line of credit to the campaign through his bank. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while a partner at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, had represented a company controlled by the Stephens family.
Stephens' also had strong ties to previous presidents and was a major contributor to the Republican party. In 1991, Stephens had arranged a bail-out for a small Texas oil company on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the Wall Street Journal. One of the company's directors and stockholders was George W. Bush, now the leading Republican candidate for president. The Stephens family also contributed to the campaign that won him his current job, Governor of Texas.
On January 15, 1992, East Liverpool residents sought an injunction against the test burn. A federal judge in Cleveland ruled in March, 1993 that WTI could conduct the eight-day test burn but suspended further operation because of public health concerns raised at the hearing. Weeks later, an appeals court in Cincinnati overturned the decision, and the facility began operating.
WTI failed part of its test burn in 1993, releasing four times more mercury than allowed. Children at the elementary school were tested for mercury in their urine prior to WTI operation and again six months after the facility started burning as part of a state health study. In the first test, 69 percent of the children tested negative; the follow-up test found that nearly the same number tested positive.
U.S. EPA's own risk assessment of the facility found at least 27 possible accident scenarios that could threaten the lives of the children in the nearby elementary school.
Despite these and other problems, the U.S. EPA issued WTI a full commercial operating license in 1997. The agency has also allowed the facility to nearly double the types of wastes it can burn.
In October, Gore announced he was moving his presidential campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville to "take this campaign for the presidency directly to the grass roots and directly to the American people."
Terri Swearingen has a different idea: "He should start in East Liverpool." Recalling a 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign slogan, she said, "It's the location, stupid."
See also "Clinton-Gore failures on dioxin," by Greenpeace.
Jennifer O'Donnell is the
Akron area Program Director of Ohio Citizen Action.