U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Carol Browner on
Tuesday announced what may turn out to be major changes in hazardous
waste incinerator policy, including a sort of moratorium on new
hazardous waste incinerators.
However, even as the new policies were being announced, one was put to
the test and it failed. The incident raises a fundamental question
about Carol Browner: can she gain control of this antediluvian
dinosaur, this anti-environmental EPA? No one doubts Browner's good
intentions, her keen intelligence, her personal environmental
credentials and convictions, or her sound character. By every measure,
she seems a genuinely good person. But can she discipline the EPA staff
to adopt pro-environment policies after a decade spent lumbering off in
a different direction? Can this ponderous 7000-member adjunct-to-
industry behemoth be tugged and shoved in a new direction by a smart
young person wielding only the title "Administrator" and a sharp
* * *
Terri Swearingen, 36, a nurse fighting the WTI incinerator in East
Liverpool, Ohio, heard about Browner's new policies from a reporter 24
hours before they were announced, moments after she was released from
jail Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. Swearingen had been confined
in D.C. jail briefly for handcuffing herself, along with 53 other
citizens, to a mock incinerator parked across the street from the White
House. The citizens handcuffed themselves to each other, then to a
bright yellow 24-foot Greenpeace truck, affectionately known as "Big
Bird." For the occasion, Big Bird was sporting a 16-foot black
smokestack which belched non-toxic white clouds throughout the
"action." The sides of the incinerator-truck bore huge signs: "Clinton
and Gore: Keep Your Word, Shut Down the Incinerator." Police could not
remove the truck from its embarrassing location on Pennsylvania Avenue
because Beth Knapp, 26, from East Liverpool, and Greenpeace campaigner
Steve Kretzmann, 29, were lying beneath it, handcuffed around its
axles. Swearingen and Beth Stenger, 30, from East Liverpool had their
right arms thrust through holes in the side of the truck, handcuffed
into pipes embedded within steel-reinforced concrete blocks inside the
truck. Their left arms were handcuffed to a human chain of handcuffed
citizens like Billie Elmore, 64, from North Carolina and Sue Lieber,
35, from Arizona, chanting "Al Gore, Read Your Book" and "For Our
Children, We Won't Move." The chain of citizens was dispatched to jail
after about an hour, but it took fire crews nearly 5 hours to cut
Swearingen and the others loose from the truck, jackhammering the
concrete blocks into dust to expose their handcuffs.
Police had to close the busy westbound lane of Pennsylvania Avenue the
better part of Monday. The media had a field day, and the White House
sent over a clerk to record how many people, from which states, had
handcuffed themselves to the truck.
Clearly the grass-roots movement for environmental justice has got the
President's attention. The NEW YORK TIMES announced EPA's new waste
policies on its front page this way Tuesday morning: "Reacting to
protests about the burning of toxic chemical wastes in Ohio, Arkansas,
and a dozen other states, the Clinton Administration plans to bar the
development of new hazardous waste incinerators for 18 months."
* * *
A moratorium on new incinerators! This was real news. I received a
last-minute invitation to EPA headquarters mid-day Tuesday to hear
Carol Browner explain her new policies to an assembled group of
incinerator operators. To my surprise, Carol Browner was nowhere in
sight. Instead, the meeting was conducted by old-time EPA hacks Sylvia
Lowrance and Richard Guimond. I was dumbstruck. These two individuals
were personally responsible for many of the Reagan/Bush policies and
programs that beyond-the-beltway environmentalists have found most
loathsome and contemptible. (See RHWN #318 and #325.) It was as if I
had been summoned to a briefing at the SEC (Securities and Exchange
Commission) to hear about strict new junk-bond policies only to find
Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken running the meeting. To the assembled
incinerator operators, Lowrance and Guimond spoke with great
earnestness about EPA's new incinerator policies and how they would
fully protect public health and the environment. But these two, and
hundreds more like them, have spent the last decade mouthing similar-
sounding platitudes, which turned out to be disingenuous pap, defending
EPA's previous policies which, they have always insisted with equal
earnestness, were fully protective of human health and the environment.
It has gotten so bad that people in East Liverpool have a standing joke
about all EPA staff: "I know you're lyin' 'cause your lips are movin'."
So what is going on? Can Carol Browner wrest control of this agency
from these hacks who for a decade have religiously committed EPA to the
benign neglect of environmental problems, or worse?
Events at EPA on Tuesday provided no reassurance. Even as Browner's new
policies were being announced, one was put to the test and it flunked
embarrassingly. In a printed statement Browner said she was taking five
actions to "immediately strengthen our program for the regulation of
incinerators and industrial furnaces that burn hazardous waste." One
immediate action was to "improve public participation." "Public
participation is one of the major cornerstones of EPA's environmental
programs. EPA is committed to meaningful public involvement in its
permitting programs," Browner's documents said.
Outside the EPA auditorium where the new policies were being announced,
Terri Swearingen, just 24 hours out of the hoosegow, arrives
accompanied by Joe Thornton, mild-mannered co-author of Greenpeace's
technical study of incineration, PLAYING WITH FIRE. They sign in,
peaceably and openly, to hear Browner announce her new policies.
Uniformed guards, on orders from higher-ups, throw them out and bar the
door. So much for participation by the interested public. Does Ms.
Browner have control of her agency? Did she herself order the door
barred or was her worthy new "public participation" program sandbagged
unbeknownst to her by bureaucrats of the Lowrance/Guimond ilk,
grotesque remnants of an era when the agency was fully committed to
secrecy and deception in the service of polluters?
What of the new moratorium? Officially, it goes this way: Currently
there are 184 hazardous waste incinerators and 171 BIFs (boilers and
industrial furnaces, including cement kilns) burning 5 million tons of
hazardous wastes each year. Fifteen incinerators and 171 of the BIFs
have "interim" but not "final" permits.
The moratorium means that these 186 existing burners without final
permits will receive priority attention--they will be subjected to new
risk assessments to examine their effects on the food chain and human
health, and if the numbers turn out badly, permit restrictions will be
tightened and some might even lose their permits. While this is going
on, no "new" incinerators will be licensed unless a "new" incinerator
is better than an old one it is intended to replace. That is the
Unfortunately, there are numerous large loopholes.
** No "remedial" incinerators will be affected. No Superfund cleanup
incinerators and no "soil burners" are subject to this moratorium. For
them, it's business as usual, and many of them are among the dirtiest
burners in America.
** EPA actually has authority to stop new incinerator permits in only 4
states (Wyoming, Iowa, Alaska and Hawaii) and in four other U.S.-
controlled territories (Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern
Mariana Islands, and American Samoa). In the remaining 46 states, the
states themselves have been given authority to issue RCRA incinerator
permits and Carol Browner has no permit-stopping authority in those 46.
** Even in the four states where Carol Browner HAS authority, Lowrance
and Guimond told Tuesday's meeting, new incinerators that are "close"
to having final permits will get a green light despite the so-called
moratorium. (What "close" means will be decided on a case-by-case
basis--which gives the Lowrance/Guimond axis full discretion.)
Discretion is everything, as shown by the WTI incinerator which failed
its official "test burn" but was given a year-long operating permit by
Ohio officials anyway. Lowrance told me WTI is a "fully permitted"
facility, not subject to the moratorium. Guimond told me it had been
"fully permitted" in 1985 (4 years before construction began) and will
not be re-examined until 1995, when its permit comes up for renewal.
* * *
At a meeting May 6th in his office in Chicago, EPA region 5
Administrator Valdus Adamkus told a group of citizens that,
"Personally, in my heart, when I saw the location [of the WTI
incinerator], I was shocked." He said he personally believed the
elementary school, 1100 feet from the WTI smoke stack, should be bought
out and moved by the incinerator owner, Swiss steel maker Von Roll. It
was a devastating admission from a civil servant whose actions over the
past 5 years have shown him to be fully committed to the
Lowrance/Guimond religion of industrial promotion at any cost.
What about the homes where children live even less than 1100 feet from
the stack? Should they be moved too? Should the whole town be moved to
make the area safe for a dangerous incinerator? Mr. Adamkus had no
answers for these questions when Terri Swearingen posed them, stabbing
her finger in the air. But his damaging admission--that WTI is too
dangerous to be sited where it is--is on the public record. How long
can the President ignore this?
The vaunted incinerator moratorium made headlines, but the substance is
small. Other, more important, announcements accompanied that one but
got little press. EPA issued a "draft strategy for combustion of
hazardous waste" that promises a completely fresh look at "how best to
integrate source reduction and waste combustion." It's a worthy goal,
and my hat is off to Carol Browner for putting it out. But events have
convinced me that until some major house cleaning takes place, EPA is
still not in shape to protect much besides polluters.
Descriptor terms: incineration; carol browner; epa; policies; hazardous
waste; public participation; terri swearingen; east liverpool, oh;
civil disobedience; greenpeace; bill clinton; al gore; beth knapp;
steve kretzmann; beth stenger; billie elmore; sue lieber; sylvia
lowrance; richard guimond; joe thornton; moratoriums; superfund; soil
burning; valdus adamkus; von roll; draft strategy for combustion of