Speech by Terri Swearingen
July 29, 1994
Second International Citizens Conference on Dioxin
St. Louis University, Missouri
I am so excited to be here. This is like a family reunion. A lot of my friends have asked me how I'm doing and I've told them, I'm still alive much to the dismay of many government and Von Roll officials
My name is Terri Swearingen. I am with the Tri-State Environmental Council, but since I live in West Virginia -- only 2 miles from the WTI incinerator, while Ohio Governor George Voinovich lives 150 miles away -- Governor Voinovich called me an outside agitator.
I am a registered nurse, but more importantly I am the mother of a twelve-year old daughter. Our struggle is now considered to be one of the longest environmental battles in the country. For 14 years we have been fighting to prevent the construction and operation of WTI, the world's largest commercial toxic waste incinerator, permitted to import hazardous waste from foreign countries to be burned in an impoverished minority Appalachian River Town.
For those unfamiliar with this case, WTI is located immediately on the bank of the Ohio River in a residential neighborhood. WTI's stack is level with a 400 student elementary school that sits on a bluff less than 1100 feet away. East Liverpool, like many communities where hazardous waste facilities are located, is in an economically depressed community of conservative, hardworking essentially blue-collar people, poor people and people of color. All of East Liverpool's 500 black American residents live in the area of the incinerator.
As a registered nurse, I initially became concerned when I learned of the proposal and heard that WTI was legally permitted to emit 4.7 tons of lead into the air every year. Any amount of lead released into the environment is cause for concern, but it becomes criminal when you consider that it will be raining down on 400 school children next door. Lead is only one of thousands of toxic substances that will be introduced into the environment, and considering WTI's proximity to homes and schools, we challenge anyone with an ounce of integrity to justify the operation of WTI in that location. It defies common sense. Even the EPA's Regional director, Valdas Adamkus, who permitted this incinerator, admitted that WTI should never have been built where it is.
In a February 15, 1994 communication on risk assessment to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, the Science Advisory Board is concerned that in areas with other sources of pollution, the EPA may need to consider the health risks from incinerators beyond a 50 km radius. 50 km is the distance considered by EPA to be the area of greatest impact. That's 31 miles. And yet, WTI is parked next door to an elementary school and the homes where the children live and play.
The January 24, 1994 Washington Post printed a letter from EPA Administrator Carol Browner to Ann Landers. In it, Ms. Browner does not seek advice, but offers it. She advises parents of the grave consequences of smoking in front of children. She cites statistics on respiratory diseases and describes the serious health risk from secondhand smoke. She says, if you choose to smoke don't smoke in front of children Carol should offer the same advice to her EPA. Think of WTI's smoke stack as a giant cigarette. In East Liverpool, as in most communities, we didn't have a choice. It has been said that the test of a government is how that government treats those in the dawn of life: the children. If it's true, WTI is a pathetic statement about the EPA and our government.
Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore have expressed concern over the WTI location. Al Gore called WTI an unbelievable idea saying, A lot of people don't know how high the stakes are.
We know how high the stakes are; our children's lives and future are at stake. Even if you forget about the emissions and their effects on the food chain, the track record of this industry proves that fires, explosions and accidents are common at these facilities.
This isn't a tragedy in the making; the tragedy has already begun. We've been given warning signs. As part of the state funded WTI health study, 69% of the children in the sample had no mercury in their urine in March '93. By September '93, after WTI dumped 29 pounds of mercury into the air during two days of their March test burn and continued to operate for 6 months, almost the same number of children now have mercury in their urine.
The EPA is currently conducting an indirect food chain risk assessment for WTI. To many, that would appear to be an acknowledgment that EPA doesn't know what the risk is. And yet WTI is burning. Our children are the miner's canaries. The simple truth is that EPA's supposed good science is a smoke screen to obscure the obvious.
During the WTI Federal court case before Judge Aldrich, in February '93, the now famous Guimond Memo surfaced. The memo, sent to EPA chief Carol Browner on January 22 by Richard Guimond, the senior U.S. Public health service officer in the EPA, details a strategy to avoid acknowledging the serious health threat from dioxin emissions at WTI. Guimond writes that risks due to consumption of dioxin contaminated beef ... in the vicinity of WTI can be 1,000 times greater than those considered in the inhalation only risk assessment. Based on this WTI specific number of 1,000 and EPA's prior finding that inhalation of dioxin alone would pose a cancer risk of 1.3 per million, the cancer risk posed by dioxin would be 130 times greater than the EPA acceptable risk standard. That's 1300 additional cancers from dioxin alone.
The memo outlines a strategy by which EPA can explain to the court its failure to assess food-chain exposures at WTI. activities underway included a review of all the risk assessment efforts related to WTI and the ORD report on dioxin exposures to ensure that any differences can be explained.
Based on EPA's own risk criteria, Judge Aldrich ultimately ruled that even one year of WTI operation posed a substantial and unacceptable risk.
We're appalled by the way EPA has tried to manipulate science to provide the illusion that WTI is safe in order to allow them to operate. Because of the financial interest behind WTI, politics has suppressed science.
There is no representative government. Public policies are designed to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. We live in a wealthocracy; a society that grants influence and power in direct proportion to wealth. Our country is dominated by this wealthy minority and the politicians mirror their views. (The top 4% of Americans make as much as the bottom half. Is 4% of the nation dictating what the remaining 96% will be forced to do?) Regulations and rules mean nothing. Special interest means everything. Politicians are guided by campaign contribution, not morals, promises or laws.
In May 1992, the House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on WTI. Two major problems we raised:
1) The WTI site is unacceptable. The insane siting of this facility, so close to homes and an elementary school, poses an undue risk to an impoverished minority community.
2) WTI's permits are invalid, and rules are not being followed.
In a Dec. 7, 1992 post election promise, President-elect Clinton and Vice President-elect Gore, in a prepared press release, said that WTI should not operate until questions of safety and legality are answered. Those questions have been answered, and everything we testified to at that congressional hearing has now been proven to be true and is documented. A federal court ruled that WTI is too dangerous to operate for even one year, and Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher has made a legal conclusion that WTI was built and is operating the incinerator without a permit in felony violation of the law. There have been a number of documented violations that should have resulted in definitive action by the EPA to halt WTI's operations. Rather than enforce the law, the EPA has worked aggressively to remove any and all obstacles from WTI's path. In fact Carol Browner's EPA was the first ever to allow a commercial hazardous waste incinerator to proceed to commercial operation immediately after the company had failed its test burn. Ms. Browner's EPA has also ignored substantive facts confirmed by the Ohio Attorney General and the federal court. The court finding that the facility poses a substantial threat was not challenged. But Clinton and Gore have shown a disturbing willingness to follow the path of political expediency and compromise with deep pocketed corporate interests. Because Clinton & Gore failed to keep their word, and because the company was able to get a court of appeals to dismiss the Judge's ruling for lack of jurisdiction; not for lack of evidence of danger: WTI is burning and our children are being poisoned now.
The sad and frustrating realization is that many parts of our democratic system are nothing more than tools to use if necessary when the public learns that they have been cheated. They use EPA public hearings, GAO investigations, meetings with elected officials and congressional hearings in an attempt to out-wait us, wear us down and cause us to retreat, hoping we will just give up.
There appears to be no effective recourse for victimized communities. The EPA has failed to enforce federal law, and the courts have been closed to us. There has been a breakdown in the process that undercuts the entire system that Congress put in place through the enactment of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Love Canal was to Superfund what WTI is to RCRA. WTI demonstrates that RCRA does not work. We need a restoration and enhancement of the law and victims rights.
WTI is not an isolated case, but it is a symptom of a national problem -- a problem that cannot and must not be ignored. WTI is the epitome of everything that is wrong with the environmental regulatory process. It is a desperate and sad situation. Unfortunately, little in the way of facts, sound argument, or violation of law has had any effect. The failure of the EPA to stop WTI is being seen as an important indication of how much influence special interest still retain on environmental matters.
In the words of author L.J. Davis on WTI:
"The consequences of its owners apparent manipulation of regulatory agencies reach far beyond ... East Liverpool. It has become a watershed case for the environmental community: If a project as clearly dangerous and malfeasant as the East Liverpool incinerator can't be stopped, then perhaps nothing can."
We are victims of our own EPA. When it comes to taking action to protect human health and the environment, EPA stops at nothing. But EPA won't stop us. We won't give up, and that's why we're going to win. Not just in East Liverpool, but across the country. We just need to be persistent. Consider the postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there, and that's what we need to do. One of my favorite quotes sums it up. Calvin Coolidge said,
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.