Shattered Promises Toxic Town, Sick Kids

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The first environmental promise Al Gore made in the 1992 campaign, he soon shattered. It involved the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, built on a floodplain near the Ohio River. The plant, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was scheduled to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste a year in a spot only 350 feet from the nearest house. A few hundred yards away is East Elementary School, which sits on a ridge nearly eye-level with the top of the smokestack.

On July 19, 1992, Gore gave one of his first campaign speeches on the environment, across the river from the incinerator, in Weirton, West Virginia, hammering the Bush Administration for its plans to give the toxic waste burner a federal air permit. “The very idea is just unbelievable to me”, Gore said. “I’ll tell you this, 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.” Clinton made similar pronouncements on his swing through the Buckeye State.

Shortly after the election, Gore assured neighbors of the incinerator that he hadn’t forgotten about them. “Serious questions concerning the safety of the East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation”, Gore wrote. “The new Clinton/Gore administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.”

But that never happened. Instead, the EPA quietly granted the WTI facility its test burn permit. The tests failed, twice. In one trial burn, the incinerator eradicated only 7 percent of the mercury found in the waste, when it was supposed to burn away 99.9 percent. A few weeks later the EPA granted WTI a commercial permit anyway. They didn’t tell the public about the failed tests until afterward.

Gore claimed his hands were tied by the Bush Administration, which had promised WTI the permit only a few weeks before the Clinton team took office. But by one account, William Reilly, Bush’s EPA director, met with Gore’s top environmental aide Katie McGinty in January 1993 and asked her if he should begin the process of approving the permit. In this version of events apparently McGinty told Reilly to proceed. McGinty told him to proceed. McGinty said later that she had no recollection of the meeting.

That evasion was demolished on October 31, when former EPA administration Reilly testified before EPA’s ombudsman Robert Martin that he was approached by by McGinty and told that Gore had had a change of heart on the incinerator and wanted the test burn permit granted. “McGinty said it was the wishes of the new incoming administration to get the trial burn permit granted and get the decision made before they took office,” Reilly testified. She [McGinty] said the vice president-elect has had second thoughts about his position, had concluded that he should not interfere in the regulatory process and that the transition team would be grateful, the vice president-elect would be grateful if I simply made that decision before leaving office.”

Gore has persisted in maintaining that there was nothing he could do about it once the permit was granted. A 1994 report on the matter from the General Accounting Office flatly contradicted him, saying the plant could be shut down on numerous grounds, including repeated violations of its permit.

“This was Clinton and Gore’s first environmental promise, and it was their first promise-breaker”, says Terri Swearingen, a registered nurse from Chester, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from the incinerator. Swearingen, who won the Goldman Prize in 1997 for her work organizing opposition to WTI, has hounded Gore ever since, and during the 2000 campaign she was banned by Gore staffers from appearing at events featuring the vice president.

The decision to go soft on WTI may have had something to do with its powerful financial backer. The construction of the incinerator was partially underwritten by Jackson Stephens, the Arkansas investment king who helped bankroll the Clinton-Gore campaign. According to EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, during the period when the WTI financing package was being put together Stephens Inc. was represented by Webb Hubbell, who later came into Clinton’s Justice Department and was indicted during the Whitewater investigation, and the Rose law firm, to which Hillary Clinton belonged. Over the ensuing seven years, the WTI plant has burned nearly a half-million tons of toxic waste, 5,000 truckloads of toxic material every year, spewing chemicals such as mercury, lead and dioxin out of its stacks and onto the surrounding neighborhoods. The inevitable illnesses have followed. CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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