Editorial: Burning Promises

OPPONENTS OF A HAZARDOUS WASTE INCINERATOR on the Ohio River believed they had cause for celebration when Vice President-elect Al Gore vowed in December that the Clinton administration would block its operation, requesting a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation of the facility. Yet the incinerator began a test burn on March 8, and President Bill Clinton announced that he will not oppose commercial operation of the East Liverpool, Ohio plant.

 Throughout the Clinton-Gore campaign, the ticket had made significant statements in opposition to the incinerator. In response to questions posed to presidential candidates by the League of Conservation Voters in December 1991, Clinton said, "I am in support of a moratorium on the construction of new garbage and hazardous waste incinerators." And on July 19, in Weirton, West Virginia, a stop on Clinton's first post-convention bus tour, Gore said that the Ohio incinerator was "deserving of a full-scale investigation," claiming, "if you had seen a Clinton-Gore administration in the past four years, you would not have seen this."

 Citizen activists in the tri-state area of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have waged a 12-year campaign of resistance against the construction of the facility, which is owned by a Swiss multinational corporation and was eased into existence by the Environmental Protection Agency of the last two anti-environment U.S. presidencies.

 Perhaps the president believes that promises made before he took office are meant to be broken, but to Ohio Valley residents, the question of whether or not the toxin- spewing incinerator would be allowed to burn has always been more than a matter of political posturing. "Our families' lives are at stake," says Terry Swearingen, a Chester, West Virginia activist.

 A mere quarter of a mile from an elementary school and a hundred yards from the nearest residence, the incinerator, owned by Swiss Von Roll, Inc. and the U.S. Waste Technologies Industries (WTI), could dramatically increase incidents of cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, neurological damage, respiratory ailments and other health effects which can occur at very low exposures to many of the metals, organochlorines and other pollutants released by waste-burning facilities. Dioxin emissions from incineration have reproductive, behavioral and immune-system effects on humans. Toxins released by the WTI incinerator will be trapped within the valley's notoriously stagnant air.

 Furthermore, ash produced by hazardous waste incineration is even more toxic than the original waste chemicals and contains increased concentrations of heavy metals, in forms that are particularly susceptible to groundwater leaching. The plant is sited on a floodplain of the Ohio River Valley, over aquifers that provide water for millions of homes.

One hundred and twenty-one physicians from Ohio Valley communities have appealed to Clinton and Gore for a commitment from the administration to withhold all permits for the facility in order to preserve the health of Valley residents. In a letter to the White House, they wrote that "essentially all the medical associations of the region are currently on record opposing this facility for its myriad threats to public health. The location of this facility gravely concerns us; the legally permitted emissions of dioxin, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals pose significant health risks to valley residents, especially the children."

 Since November, over 100 people engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience have been arrested at the site. On March 18, incinerator opponents staged a sit-in inside the White House, demanding a meeting with Clinton. The residents of the Ohio Valley called upon the president to keep his campaign promise and revoke the facility's permit. Swearingen, who was arrested for participating in civil disobedience at the White House, said, "We've come here because Mr. Clinton is trying to abandon us and we are not going to let him. ... Candidate Clinton said he was on our side, that the facility did not belong there, and that there should be no burning until a full investigation was completed. The facility is now operating with the full blessing of the Clinton EPA."

 Clinton's decision to cave in to the waste-burning operators of the Ohio plant, which came a day after a federal appellate court in Cincinnati cleared the way for the WTI incinerator to begin accepting tons of toxic wastes, has profound national implications. Seventeen hazardous waste incinerators are currently operating in the United States, and the incinerator industry depends on the continued generation of hazardous waste for its growth and profitability. The demand for dangerous waste created by the industry stands at odds with environmentally sustainable goals of reduction and recycling of waste.

The Clinton administration should immediately revoke the incinerator's permit based on the threat the facility poses to human health and the environment. In keeping with the stance Clinton took during his campaign, the administration should also seek the introduction of and support national legislation for a moratorium on siting, permitting or increasing the capacity of hazardous waste incinerators. An immediate prohibition of the incineration of wastes containing substances with devastating health effects, such as dioxin, should be implemented. And the Clinton-Gore team should establish a mandatory pollution prevention program, with stringent requirements for all industry and government-owned incineration facilities.

 In the meantime, those Ohio Valley residents who were betrayed by Clinton will continue to fight against the poisonous plant that is now expelling toxic ash and smoke 1,100 feet from the playground of their children's school. Says Swearingen, "The president and vice president campaigned on a promise to reverse the business-as-usual environmental policies of the Bush administration. They have the power to revoke this permit and shut down the incinerator, and we'll keep pushing until they live up to their promises.