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#542 - Activist Mom Wins Goldman Prize, 16-Apr-1997

[People in the Ohio Valley have spent 15 years fighting one of the
world's largest toxic waste incinerators, known as WTI.[1] One grass-
roots community leader in the WTI fight, Terri Swearingen, was honored
this week by receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize for North
America --the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

The WTI incinerator, in East Liverpool, Ohio, was initiated in 1982 by
one of President Clinton's wealthy political backers in Arkansas --
Jackson Stephens of Stephens, Inc., in Little Rock.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore visited East Liverpool while
campaigning for election in 1992; at that time, Mr. Clinton said that,
if he were elected, WTI would never be allowed to operate. Mr. Clinton
was elected in 1992.

In 1992, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admitted during
Congressional hearings that it had illegally issued an operating permit
to WTI. The huge incinerator began burning hazardous waste in 1993,
1100 feet from an elementary school. Mr. Clinton has not returned to
East Liverpool since he became President.

Here is Terri Swearingen's acceptance speech for the Goldman
Environmental Prize, given April 14, 1997.]

by Terri Swearingen

I am like the turtle on the fencepost. I did not get here alone. In
addition to the many caring and courageous people I work with in the
Ohio Valley, special recognition goes to Greenpeace, and to Dr. Paul
Connett and his wife, Ellen.[2] And all my love, respect and deepest
gratitude go to my husband, Lee, my daughter, Jaime, and my family. I
accept this award on their behalf, and on behalf of all the
environmental activists across the country who are working just as
hard, but whose work has not been recognized in such a profound way. It
is appropriate that the work of grass-roots activists be recognized. I
am excited about this award, not just for personal reasons, but I
believe it vindicates the efforts of thousands and thousands of grass-
roots activists in this country, and around the world, who work on
environmental issues on a daily basis. To the Goldman family, my most
heartfelt thanks.

I am not a scientist or a Ph.D. I am a nurse and a housewife, but my
most important credential is that I am a mother. In 1982, I was
pregnant with our one and only child. That's when I first learned of
plans to build one of the world's largest toxic waste incinerators in
my community. When they began site preparation to begin building the
incinerator in 1990, my life changed forever. I'd like to share with
you some of the lessons I have learned from my experiences over the
past seven years.

One of the main lessons I have learned from the WTI experience is that
we are losing our democracy. How have I come to this sad realization?
Democracy is defined by Merriam Webster as "government by the people,
especially rule of the majority," and "the common people constituting
the source of political authority." The definition of democracy no
longer fits with the reality of what is happening in East Liverpool,
Ohio. For one thing, it is on the record that the majority of people in
the Ohio Valley do not want the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in
their area, and they have been opposed to the project from its
inception. Some of our elected officials have tried to help us, but the
forces arrayed against us have been stronger than we or they had
imagined. Public concerns and protests have been smothered with
meaningless public hearings, voodoo risk assessment and slick legal
maneuvering. Government agencies that were set up to protect public
health and the environment only do their job if it does not conflict
with corporate interests. Our current reality is that we live in a
"wealthocracy"--big money simply gets what it wants. In this
wealthocracy, we see three dynamics at play: corporations versus the
planet, the government versus the people, and corporate consultants or
"experts" versus common sense. In the case of WTI, we have seen all
three.

The second lesson I have learned ties directly to the first, and that
is that corporations can control the highest office in the land. When
Bill Clinton and Al Gore came to the Ohio Valley, they called the
siting of the WTI hazardous waste incinerator --next door to a 400
student elementary school, in the middle of an impoverished Appalachian
neighborhood, immediately on the bank of the Ohio River in a flood
plain--an "UNBELIEVABLE IDEA." They said we ought to have control over
where these things are located. They even went so far as to say they
would stop it. But then they didn't! What has been revealed in all this
is that there are forces running this country that are far more
powerful than the President and the Vice President. This country
trumpets to the world how democratic it is, but it's funny that I come
from a community that our President dare not visit because he cannot
witness first hand the injustice which he has allowed in the interest
of a multinational corporation, Von Roll of Switzerland. And the Union
Bank of Switzerland. And Jackson Stephens, a private investment banker
from Arkansas. These forces are far more relevant to our little town
than the President of the United States! And he is the one who made it
that way. He has chosen that path. We didn't choose it for him. We
begged him to come to East Liverpool, but he refused. We begged the
head of EPA to come, but she refused. She hides behind the clever
maneuvering of lawyers and consultants who obscure the dangers of the
reckless siting of this facility with theoretical risk assessments.

I always thought of the President of the United States as an all-
powerful person, who could even, if necessary, launch a war to protect
his nation's people. But in the case of WTI, we have this peculiar
situation where the President dare not come to East Liverpool, Ohio. It
may be the one place in the whole of this country, maybe even the
world, where he cannot go. He cannot go to East Liverpool to see for
himself what he has allowed. He cannot go to East Liverpool to see with
his own eyes where this incinerator is operating. We know that if he
came to East Liverpool to see it for himself, he would not be able to
say that it is okay. We know that he would never have allowed his own
daughter, Chelsea, to go to school in the shadow of this toxic waste
incinerator. And that's precisely why he dare not come to East
Liverpool. He knows that it is wrong. He knows that it is unacceptable.
The decision to build the incinerator there was political, and the
decision to allow it to operate, despite the stupidity of its location,
is political. The buck stops with President Clinton. No child should
have to go to school 1000 feet from a hazardous waste facility, and no
president should allow it. He cannot shove off the responsibility to a
bureaucracy. I believe you cannot have power without responsibility.

The third thing that I have learned from this situation, which ties in
with the first two, is that we have to reappraise what expertise is and
who qualifies as an expert. There are two kinds of experts. There are
the experts who are working in the corporate interest, who often serve
to obscure the obvious and challenge common sense; and there are
experts and non-experts who are working in the public interest. From my
experience, I am distrusting more and more the professional experts,
not because they are not clever, but because they do not ask the right
questions. And that's the difference between being clever and being
wise. Einstein said, "A clever person solves a problem; a wise person
avoids it." This lesson is extremely relevant to the nation, and to
other countries as well, especially in developing economies. We have
learned that the difference between being clever and being wise is the
difference between working at the front end of the problem or working
at the back end. Government that truly represents the best interest of
its people must not be seduced by corporations that work at the back
end of the problem --with chemicals, pesticides, incinerators, air
pollution control equipment, etc. The corporate value system is
threatening our health, our planet and our very existence. As my good
friend, Dr. Paul Connett, says "WE ARE LIVING ON THIS PLANET AS IF WE
HAD ANOTHER ONE TO GO TO." We have to change the way we look at the
world. We must change our thinking and our attitude. This is so
important. We MUST change the value system. We have to live on this
planet assuming that we do not have another one to go to! We must get
to the front end of problems so that we avoid the mistakes of the past.
Thinking about our planet in this way puts a whole new perspective on
what we do and how we act. For example, if we are dealing with issues
of agriculture, we need to be thinking about sustainable agriculture
with low chemical input. If we are looking at energy, we need to look
at solar energy, energy that is sustainable. If we are discussing
transportation, we should be looking at ways of designing cities to
avoid the use of cars. And when it comes to hazardous waste, we should
[be] talking about clean production, not siting new incinerators. We
should be trying to get ahead of the curve. People at the grass-roots
level get taught this lesson the hard way --they get poisoned by back-
end thinking. They learn that we have to shift to front-end solutions
if we are to save our communities and our planet. Citizens who are
working in this arena --people who are battling to stop new dump sites
or incinerator proposals, people who are risking their lives to prevent
the destruction of rainforests or working to ban the industrial uses of
chlorine and PVC plastics --are often labeled obstructionists and anti-
progress. But we actually represent progress --not technological
progress, but social progress. We have become the real experts, not
because of our title or the university we attended, but because we have
been threatened and we have a different way of seeing the world. We
know what is at stake. We have been forced to educate ourselves, and
the final exam represents our children's future. We know we have to ace
the test because when it comes to our children, we cannot afford to
fail. Because of this, we approach the problem with common sense and
with passion. We don't buy into the notion that all it takes is better
regulations and standards, better air pollution control devices and
more bells and whistles. We don't believe that technology will solve
all of our problems. We know that we must get to the front end of the
problems, and that prevention is what is needed. We are leading the way
to survival in the 21st century. Our planet cannot sustain a "throw-
away society." In order to survive, we have to be wise, not just
clever. This is why, ultimately, it is so disastrous that there are
people who think that they've solved the WTI problem with more
technology. You cannot patch up an injustice --an unjust situation --
with technology. The developers behind WTI made a fundamental mistake
in the beginning by building the incinerator next door to an elementary
school and in the middle of a neighborhood. This is a violation of
human rights and common decency. As Martin Luther King said, "INJUSTICE
ANYWHERE IS INJUSTICE EVERYWHERE."

Even after seeing so much abuse of the system that I have believed in,
I still hold on to the slender hope that my government could once again
return to representing citizens like me rather than rapacious corporate
interests. If they do, then perhaps there is a future for our species;
if they don't, we are doomed.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] See RACHEL'S #255, #287, #288, #298, #315, #320, #325, #326, #328,
#341.

[2] Ellen and Paul Connett publish the weekly WASTE NOT, 82 Hudson
Street, Canton, NY 13617; phone: (315) 379-9200; fax: (315) 379-0448;
E-mail: wastenot@northnet.org. $48/year for individuals and well worth
the price.

Descriptor terms: hazardous waste incineration; wti; citizen activism;
terri swearingen; goldman envirommental prize; paul connett; ellen
connett; waste not; jackson stephens; bill clinton; carol browner; epa;
speeches;