The longest-running incinerator battle in America boiled over late last
month when nearly 400 citizens in East Liverpool, Ohio shut down a
public meeting September 25 chanting and singing "America the
Beautiful" so loudly that officials of U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) and Ohio EPA surrendered, wheeled out a black board
bearing the scrawled words, "We can't convene this meeting so it is
adjourned. Send your written comments to U.S. EPA in Chicago," and left
town, their ears red and ringing. As we went to press, 20 local
citizens and two Greenpeace campaigners were still being held in three
local jails, charged with civil disobedience--a mass trespass on the
property of the WTI incinerator in East Liverpool Sunday October 13.
Between September 20 and October 13 momentum had built steadily.
September 23 a consulting firm called CHMR loosely affiliated with
University of Pittsburgh released a report saying the huge furnace was
entirely safe. Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner, author of PLAYING WITH
FIRE; HAZARDOUS WASTE INCINERATION, cut the report to shreds on
technical grounds. "This report displays an embarrassing level of
incompetence and complete lack of integrity," she began, then unfolded
a laundry list of errors, evasions, and untruths. In an experiment in
low-cost media, Costner delivered her blast from her home in Arkansas.
Her written critique was sent by modem to Ohio, where it was printed
and photocopied for distribution. She then videotaped her critical
remarks, sent the tape by overnight courier for presentation the next
day at a press conference in Pittsburgh where she answered reporters'
questions by phone from Arkansas.
A couple of days later Richard Sahli, former chairperson of Ohio's
siting board, attacked the incinerator as dangerous and outdated
technology that didn't belong anywhere, least of all at water's edge on
the Ohio River.
WTI public relations teams scheduled a "public information meeting" in
a local school Sept. 24. But local citizens boycotted what they viewed
as sham science and outright lies intended not to inform but to ramrod
a dangerous project into a rural town. Only about 10 people sat in the
empty hall while 150 angry citizens held a noisy demonstration outside.
"We stole their show completely," said Joy Allison, a local leader.
The next night government took its turn at trying to convince people in
East Liverpool that America's largest toxic waste incinerator was just
what they needed to improve the quality of life in their little town.
Citizens announced they would shut down the hearing. Nearly 400 local
people showed up. As the show-and-tell got underway, citizens laid a
coffin with a folded American flag on the stage behind EPA officials to
symbolize the death of democracy. As the hearing opened, local leader
Terri Swearingen stood on her chair and shouted through a bull horn,
"This hearing is a sham," and all nonviolent hell broke loose. Local
citizens had smuggled at least 5 battery-powered bull horns into the
gym and the combined blast of bull horns plus 400 people chanting and
singing in one room produced a deafening din that didn't diminish until
EPA turned tail after nearly an hour. "You could hardly hear the person
right next to you," said Swearingen, 35, a nurse and mother turned
activist. "It was beautiful and powerful," she said. "It restored a
sense of control for local people, and that sense of democracy is still
growing. That meeting was the turning point," she said.
Momentum kept building and this past Sunday (October 13), 34 people
were arrested for civil disobedience (trespassing on WTI property) in
the quiet eastern Ohio town. Outsiders like actor Martin Sheen and
charismatic chemist Paul Connett, head of Work on Waste USA, were both
arrested, linked arm in arm with local people. The crowd was singing
"Amazing Grace" when Sheen said, "I feel led by the Spirit to climb
over this fence," and he did. Thirty-three others followed suit and
The town was shaken to its midwestern roots, and so was Ohio
government. Governor Voinovich blamed the entire series of events on
"outside agitators" but anyone who has followed the ten-year history of
WTI knows the governor missed the point.
After five years of battle, the WTI project was badly stalled in 1984
because it was then owned outright by Waste Management, Inc. (WMI), a
convicted felon. Under Ohio's "bad boy" law, convicted felons can't get
a license to handle hazardous wastes in Ohio. Now a complex financial
arrangement lets WMI profit from the incinerator through a thinly-
veiled shield of subsidiaries. WMI sold its WTI permit to Von Roll
(America), a European firm that provides the furnaces for Wheelabrator
incinerators (a WMI subsidiary). The incinerator is being built by Rust
Engineering (a WMI subsidiary). The 47 million pounds of hazardous ash
produced by WTI each year will be sent to dumps in Wayne County,
Indiana, and Model City, New York owned by Chemical Waste Management (a
WMI subsidiary). But Ohio government gave WTI a permit on the pretense
that convicted felon WMI is nowhere in sight. "They are not fooling
anyone," said Alonzo Spencer, head of SOC (Save Our County) who has
been fighting WTI relentlessly for 10 years. As we went to press,
Spencer--a soft-spoken, middle-aged businessman--was in city jail in
There ARE outsiders in East Liverpool--a handful of seasoned Greenpeace
activists have set up an outpost in a house across the river in
Chester, WV where they are being kept alive by the local Dominoes Pizza
outlet as they work late into the night helping local people make their
moves--but to think of these events as outsider-driven is to miss
entirely what's happening here. The people in jail are ordinary
Americans--nurses, airplane pilots, ministers, shopkeepers, homemakers,
family people, senior citizens--who were being herded to the
slaughterhouse by the regulatory-industrial complex when they bolted
from the chute, growing feisty and independent in the process. They
have now learned the secret of success: the system simply does not know
how to handle citizens who confront their corporate adversaries
directly, start exercising their right of free speech and start taking
the Declaration of Independence to heart: "Governments are instituted
among [people], deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed--[and] whenever any form of government becomes destructive of
those ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it...,"
the Declaration says. Withholding consent is powerful medicine for an
After the first bunch was taken off to jail, people regrouped later
that night. Vern Hurst and nearly 20 others from the group STOP IT in
Nova, Ohio, had arrived to help any way they could in the WTI fight.
Hurst, a retired Air Force captain who has spent years fighting an
incinerator proposed for his home town by IT Corp., spoke eloquently of
the need to press on. "They've jailed your leaders, they hope they've
broken your spirit. But this is the time to gather our strength and
renew the fight until victory is ours...."
Government is being altered in Ohio. The consent of the governed is
being withheld in East Liverpool.
The WTI incinerator is nearly 80% built, and construction is on a fast
track with activity round the clock. It is the biggest incinerator ever
proposed in the U.S. with a capacity of 176,000 tons of liquid
hazardous waste and another 83,000 tons of inorganic waste annually.
WTI estimates that 11,000 trucks will drive through East Liverpool
delivering wastes each year. If the incinerator works perfectly, with
never a single upset, leak, spill or accident, it will release
somewhere between 26 and 260 tons of raw, unburned hazardous wastes
directly into the air of East Liverpool, plus 1.5 million pounds of
toxic metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic, and so forth), and another 5.1
million pounds of toxic organics called Products of Incomplete
Combustion (PICs); these are toxic compounds created inside the
incinerator, many of them more dangerous than the raw wastes from which
they were created during combustion. This large quantity of toxic
pollution will sweep through an elementary school 1100 feet from the
smoke stack, then down into the valleys of nearby Pennsylvania and West
Virginia, carrying hazards as far as Pittsburgh (37 miles away) and
beyond. Citizen groups in all three states have formed an alliance to
stop WTI. West Virginia's Governor Caperton says he'll sue to stop it.
If that happens, WTI seems headed for the U.S. Supreme Court and, at a
minimum, serious delay.
People from East Liverpool and surrounding towns are now confident they
can win their decade-long battle against the hated incinerator. "It was
taking over that EPA meeting that did it for us. If we could do that,
we can do anything," said one local citizen-turned-activist.
As we went to press, 20 local people and two Greenpeacers remained in
three separate jails. Reports from the Columbiana County jail in Lisbon
indicated that women prisoners were being denied basic necessities like
tampons; one woman, a diabetic, was being denied a diet suitable for
her medical needs. No such problems were being reported by the jailed
men. It seems gender discrimination continues everywhere in our
developing society, even as democracy's handbook is being rewritten.
Descriptor terms: east liverpool, oh; oh; epa; wti; pat costner;
greenpeace; hazardous waste incineration; waste disposal technologies;
hazardous waste; martin sheen; paul connett; wmi; bad boy laws; von
roll; wheelabrator; rust engineering; cwmi; alonzo spencer; wv;
chester, wv; citizen groups; pa; heavy metals; pics; democracy;