Volume Seven, Number Six
September/October 1998


The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

Excerpts from a recent interview with Terri Swearingen, of Chester WV, 1997 winner of the Goldman Prize, the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize. (

I am a registered nurse and the mother of a teenage daughter. With people in East Liverpool, Ohio, I have been fighting for 17 years to prevent the construction and operation of a toxic waste incinerator by Waste Technologies Industries (WTI), now owned by VonRoll, a multinational Swiss corporation.

WTI is permitted to burn toxic waste in a politically weak, impoverished town. WTI is located in the floodplain of the Ohio River, in a low income, primarily African American residential neighborhood where the closest home is only 320 feet away. Its smoke stack is level with the front doors and windows of a 400 pupil elementary school that sits 1,100 feet away on a bluff above the site. Air inversions trap toxic pollutants 8 out of every 10 days.

I first heard about WTI in 1982. I was shocked that, among other pollutants, WTI would legally be allowed to emit up to 4.7 tons of lead into the air annually. Lead is only one of hundreds of toxic substances known to be emitted from incinerators.

In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a permit for WTI. The Ohio siting board followed suit in 1984, despite objections from experts at the Department of Natural Resources concerned about building an incinerator in the flood plain atop two fresh water aquifers. Four months after Ohio issued the permit, the state passed legislation saying you cannot build a hazardous waste management facility within 2,000 feet of any home, school, hospital or prison, or within the flood plain.

In 1990, without disclosing the change of ownership, WTI sold the permit, engaging in a complex corporate shell game to create the illusion of continuity, involving 44 corporate names at one time or another, in order to hide the illegal sale of the permit.

In 1991, when construction was under way, a group of 33 citizens, members of the Tri-State Environmental Council, climbed over the 8-foot fence surrounding WTI to call attention to the injustice. We were arrested, thrown in jail and charged with criminal trespass. We won the lawsuit brought by the company, as expert witnesses agreed that it had been necessary for us to try to stop the incinerator to protect our kids.

Other than one local pastor in our group, no churches were involved in the Tri-State Council. I did not ask the churches for help. We sent informational material to all the churches. I felt they could see what was happening and would get involved. But they did not. I gave presentations in several churches, and did not receive a warm reception. I cannot understand why churches are not involved in such a moral issue. (emphasis mine: Ed.)

At a 1992 congressional hearing, EPA officials admitted violating federal law in issuing the permit. In response to that and their refusal to stop the incinerator, we took over the office of EPA administrator William Reilly, refusing to leave. They had us all arrested and thrown into the Washington DC jail.

Clinton and Gore, on their campaign bus tour, expressed outrage over the location of the incinerator, and promised they would not allow WTI to proceed. In 1992 VonRoll gave the Democratic party $10,000. When the President failed to keep his promise, we were forced to file a suit in federal court. The court finding in favor of our citizens' group was reversed on appeal, based on lack of jurisdiction, not on lack of evidence of risk

In May 1993, we parked a mock incinerator in front of the White House, tying up traffic for 6 hours until police could free us from the cement-filled "incinerator". The next day EPA administrator Carol Browner announced an 18- month nationwide moratorium on hazardous waste incinerators. No new toxic waste incinerators have been built since 1993 a victory for the rest of the country, if not for East Liverpool.

There in 1995, before the completion of the risk assessment, the government itself became a VonRoll customer. In 1997 EPA gave WTI its full commercial operating license for over 600 toxic substances, while acknowledging that the incinerator is too close to homes and the school.

VonRoll recently filed a SLAPP suit against us $1.25 million for alleged defamation.

This pattern is happening all over the country. The powers-that-be have subverted every protection that we thought we had a danger for everyone. Every day that WTI operates, we are losing good science, human decency, sound policy, justice and democracy.