Activists question Gore's crusade
Waste incinerator he vowed to stop in 1992 is now online near a
river and schoolBy Robert Salladay
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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 promiseChildren. 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
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
"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
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
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
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."