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A week's worth
  Saturday Sep 16, 2000

Activists question Gore's crusade

Waste incinerator he vowed to stop in 1992 is now online near a river and school

By Robert Salladay
At the time, the Clinton-Gore administration was so new it simply typed the words, "Office of the Vice President-elect" on Al Gore's U.S. Senate stationery and issued its first environmental promise to the nation.

Nearly eight years later, nothing has changed.

The December 1992 press release wasn't a sweeping statement to protect American forests or reduce greenhouse emissions, but a commitment to a small working-class Ohio town. A corporation had erected a hazardous waste incinerator that residents feared would spew lead, mercury and dioxin into the air just 1,100 feet from an elementary school.

The incinerator also stands next to the Ohio River. The "very idea" of putting an incinerator near on a flood plain, "you know is just unbelievable to me," candidate Gore said during a July 1992 campaign stop nearby.

But Gore's first environmental crusade as vice president has proved a failure. The administration did nothing to stop the incinerator, which is now fully operational, making it the first example for activists of the cold difference between Gore the environmentalist in theory and Gore the environmentalist in practice.

The East Liverpool incinerator continues to dog the vice president through the 2000 election, even after seven years that has included protests outside the White House, an incredulous "60 Minutes" piece, a week of scathing Wall Street Journal editorials, Martin Sheen sit-ins, lawsuits and threats of civil disobedience on the eve of the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

"They said that they were going to be on the side of the citizens for a change, and their first step was not to allow this plant to go on line. We're still waiting," said Alonzo Spencer, 71, a lifelong East Liverpool resident and former steel worker, now one of the leading opponents of the plant.

Probably no presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt has been more associated with environmental activism than Gore, author of "Earth in the Balance," chairman of the first congressional hearing on toxic waste cleanup, international crusader to reduce global warming.

But now many environmentalists say Gore is palatable as their presidential choice only because the record of his Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is far more lacking. Where Gore's election in 1992 was considered an environmental victory, even for the most ardent activists, Gore's candidacy is now seen as simply maintaining the status quo.

"I was one of the people, with many of my colleagues, who celebrated the night Clinton got elected and Gore was in," said David Phillips, executive director of San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute. "I can say that virtually to a person, the people I was with are now extremely disillusioned with Gore's failure to translate his philosophies into meaningful reform."

Earlier this year, Gore's staff tried to defuse the issue after community and Greenpeace activists traveled to New Hampshire to disrupt his campaign headquarters. The White House intervened, and after a late-night exchange of faxes and phone calls at a Motel 6, Gore agreed to appoint an EPA ombudsman to issue a recommendation.

"I thought it was pretty cool that, here we were, a handful of citizens conducting official government business with the White House on Super Bowl Sunday from the lobby of a Motel 6," said Terri Swearingen, 43, a nurse and community activist who has been arrested nine times protesting the incinerator.

That ombudsman's report is expected within a month just weeks before the election.

The Gore campaign says the East Liverpool facility is no longer an "official issue." This year, Gore environmental officials have said the plant is running safely, that he never really promised to shut the plant, only look into its safety, that the previous Bush administration tied its hands by issuing a permit in the final hours.

"Gore did call for an investigation," said spokeswoman Maria Meier. "But after review, the White House eventually sided with the plant and found they were in compliance."

East Liverpool probably wouldn't be an issue, official or otherwise, if Gore hadn't made such a big deal about the place. But Gore stood before a cheering crowd during the 1992 campaign and told residents he "admired your fight." At the time, Clinton and Gore needed Ohio to win the election against President George Bush.

The East Liverpool incinerator, owned by a Swiss conglomerate, is one of the largest in the world designed to burn and eliminate to the highest degree possible the deadliest cancer-causing chemicals. The Ohio operator, Waste Technology Industries, estimates it can handle 60,000 pounds of toxic chemicals a year. It doesn't burn nuclear materials or medical waste, but solvents used in manufacturing.

Inexplicably, the former mayor of East Liverpool during the early 1980s wanted the $165 million plant built just down the hill from a 400-student elementary school and only a few hundred feet from the nearest homes. (Ohio law now requires incinerators to be at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools.)

The riverbank site had been used for industrial plants and petro-chemical storage for most of the 20th century, and the new incinerator would bring jobs and an environmental cleanup of the contaminated site, the community was told.

The nearby elementary school has a disaster plan that calls for sealing the windows of the cafeteria with tin foil and duct tape, cutting off the air conditioning, and moving the children inside.

Clinton's campaign promise

Children. The environment. Ohio. It was the perfect spot for a campaign stop. Gore and Clinton came to the area and took sides.

"It's important for the nation to learn from the struggle you're engaged in," Gore told residents then, adding: "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 incinerators."

A month after being elected, Gore called for a General Accounting Office review of the East Liverpool plant before it was given permission to even perform a test. "The new Clinton-Gore administration would not issue the plant a test burn permit," Gore said, until the report answers "serious questions" about the plant's safety.

Just weeks before Clinton and Gore took office, and before the GAO report could get started, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush issued a permit to perform a controlled test burn at the plant.

Gore's promise to stop the testing became moot.

But for the next seven years Gore did nothing to stop the operation of the incinerator, even when it became clear the plant had emitted dangerous chemicals during the test burn and had been cited for "serious ... hazardous waste

violations" since 1996, according to a letter EPA sent this year to Von Roll America, the Swiss owners.

The early East Liverpool test results were the first opportunity for the Clinton-Gore administration to stop the plant, activists believe. The test showed the incinerator removed only 6.7 percent of mercury from the air, when the EPA requires 99.9 percent.

One month later, the Clinton-Gore administration nevertheless issued a temporary permit to the plant, prompting a lawsuit by Greenpeace on behalf of the community. Only three months into their administration, Gore and the federal EPA were officially siding with the Swiss conglomerate against the East Liverpool community in the lawsuit.

"Clinton and Gore could have stopped the facility at this juncture," Swearingen said. "Instead, they became the first administration in history to allow a toxic waste incinerator to operate after failing its test burn."

In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration issued a full permit to the East Liverpool incinerator. They relied on the GAO report and two EPA reports in 1995 and 1997 finding the risks of the plant acceptable.

A spokesman for the plant said the 1992 test burn had failed in one combustion chamber of a kiln, which was quickly and permanently shut down. Since then, the plant remains one of the safest plants in the nation, he said, in part because the EPA has been so diligent in monitoring Gore's crusade.

"Mr. Gore did keep his promise," said Von Roll America spokesman Raymond J. Wayne. "What he promised was he would not approve the trial burn until the GAO conducted a study. ... The conclusions did not meet the goals of a handful of activists, but that has become a urban legend that he did not keep his promise."

The central question from the East Liverpool incident is why Gore would blame the Bush administration, then side-step the whole issue, claiming he didn't have the power to keep his promise to the Ohio Valley.

In 1992, new Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt summarily overturned several last-hour Bush administration decisions, including a plan to allow a nuclear dump in the California desert.

The answer may be simple politics.

The new Clinton-Gore EPA administrator, Carol Browner, removed herself from all decisions concerning the plant because her husband worked for Citizen Action, an environmental group that had opposed the plant. Early decisions about the plant then fell to career EPA officials, many of them in power during the Bush administration.

But there were financial connections between the Clinton-Gore campaign and an initial financial backer of the East Liverpool incinerator, a fact uncovered by Mother Jones magazine in 1993.

Arkansas financier and businessman Jackson Stephens was a principal partner in helping finance the building of the incinerator. Stephens Inc. raised $100,000 for Clinton, and its bank subsidiary, Worthen Bank, gave the campaign a $3.5 million line of credit.

Gore's campaign spokeswoman referred calls about the details of the Waste Technology Industries incinerator to the White House. A spokesman for the vice president's White House office referred calls to the EPA, which did not return calls.

Whatever the politics, whatever happened over the past seven years with Gore, community activists are willing to give Gore one more chance to fulfill his 1992 campaign promise to "be on your side for a change." They hope the ombudsman report helps.

"This could be a coup for Al Gore," Swearingen said. "Al Gore could come into this community and say, 'This is not acceptable.' It would show the nation he is trustworthy, that he keeps his promises, and that he is accountable to the people."

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