The Town that Hates Al Gore

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio -- They gathered outside the school administration building, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and chatting in the bright autumn sunlight while awaiting Ralph Nader's arrival.

There was an old man known locally as Klein, a "true West Virginia hermit" according to a neighbor, who has few teeth and a half-dozen cars propped up on concrete blocks at his mountaintop property across the Ohio River.

There were mothers, fathers and elderly citizens who, after nearly twenty years, have made their fight against the Waste Technologies Industries incinerator in this old Rust Belt town the longest-running active environmental battle in the country.

There were a dozen WTI workers, some in blue workshirts with their names embroidered above the breast pocket, looking skeptical and defensive. There were supporters of Nader's Green Party presidential candidacy from Pittsburgh and environmental activists from southern Ohio. And just over a thousand feet behind all of them, the incinerator's smokestack blew billows of fumes into the sky.

"There, it's diving, look at that," one man said, pointing to the smoke as it shot up and then curled back down toward the valley, illustrating what opponents say is a geographical pollutant trap penned in by mountains on all sides. The WTI incinerator is one of the largest of its type in the world, burning 60,000 tons of hazardous waste annually since 1993, and has attracted attention most recently as a symbol of Vice President and Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore's alleged inconsistency on environmental issues.

During the 1992 presidential campaign while the incinerator was in construction, Gore came to East Liverpool, lambasted the project and promised that "the Clinton-Gore administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems."

During the subsequent transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations, however, trial-burns were conducted and the incinerator was enabled to begin operating despite tests that determined toxin levels beyond the Environmental Protection Agency's own standards.

Nader slammed Gore for what he called the "phony populist rhetoric" of his environmentalism, and called on the Vice President to honor his eight-year old promise to hold the incinerator to EPA standards.

"Al Gore knows how to talk the talk on issues of the environment and public health but when it comes time to stand up to corporate power and get results, he won't even attempt to walk the walk," Nader said. "Eight years of lying have illustrated what a certified public coward he is. If Al Gore was a business practice, he would be prosecuted by the federal trade commission as a 'deceptive trade practice.'"

The Gore campaign says the East Liverpool facility is no longer an "official issue." This year, Gore environmental officials have said the plant is running safely, that he never really promised to shut the plant, only look into its safety and that the previous Bush administration tied its hands by issuing a permit in the final hours.

"Gore did call for an investigation," spokeswoman Maria Meier told the San Francisco Examiner this month. "But after review, the White House eventually sided with the plant and found they were in compliance."

Some activists described a web of corruption linking powerful government officials and industry heavyweights in Ohio, New York, Washington and even Arkansas as the enabling force behind WTI. "Because of what we know about all the legalities involved in the permitting process," said Richard Keith Wolf, a local environmental activist, "this facility could not have come into existence or remain operational without there being collusion and conspiracy at the highest levels between government and industry."

Wolf has been arrested four times in Washington for acts of civil disobedience meant to draw attention to WTI, and was one of 33 protesters arrested in 1992 in East Liverpool for trespassing at the plant in symbolic protest.

Terri Swearingen, a registered nurse and organizer with the Tri-State Environmental Council which opposes WTI, said she was primarily motivated by the proximity of the East Elementary School to the incinerator.

"They have no say, no voice and no power in the decision-making process," Swearingen said. "This school is 400 yards from the stack, and being embedded in a flood basin, the height of the stack is level with the front doors of the school. A lot of days we see the plumes blowing right into the school."

Swearinger said cancer rates in East Liverpool are 40 percent higher than the rest of the country, although no conclusive evidence has tied the disease to the incinerator.

Not everyone in East Liverpool is opposed to the waste incinerator, including the facility's 185 employees. Otis Logan came to hear Nader speak with a group of co-workers out of curiosity, and judged his ideas misguided and misinformed.

"When you have protesters and people like Ralph Nader coming out against the incinerator, that affects me because it's my livelihood," said Logan. "We are a clean and environmentally safe company, we have been for the past eight years and will be into the future. I may have stubbed my thumb, but there's never been a real accident where anybody's been injured."

Logan grew up in East Liverpool and said that he feels safer working "as close as you can possibly get" to hazardous waste at the incinerator than he would working in a steel mill, as his father did.

Similar sentiment was expressed by WTI General Manager Fred Sigg, who did not attend the event but spoke with the local Morning Journal about Nader's appearance. Sigg believed Nader was using WTI as a political football, and told the paper the "EPA has carried out a number of activities at the WTI facility ... to help ensure that the WTI facility will not adversely affect the health and environment of those who live in the East Liverpool area, [but] because the report's conclusions do not jibe with the critics' premeditated notions, they are doing what they can to embarrass Gore. Turning to Nader is their latest ploy."

Indeed, embarrassing Vice President Gore seemed to be a thinly veiled intention of the event, but one which residents thought was warranted given Gore's history in their town. "He is at best a political opportunist," said Wolf. "He sounds robotic when he speaks and I doubt there's a single sincere bone in his body. His life is dedicated to politics and not to principle, and I could never support him."

Swearingen agreed, saying that when Gore came in 1992 and announced his intention to stop the incinerator from opening, she thought he was an angel, but her previous hope has been overshadowed by disappointment and doubt. "He says that he cares about the environment, education and family values, but if he really cares about these things, all he has to do is come to East Liverpool and say, 'This is unacceptable. I would not allow my child to go to school here and so I don't think it's acceptable to force your children to go to school here.'"

East Liverpool is an industrial town of 13,000 that some say is a magnet for polluting industries because of the precedent set long ago by steel mills, and also because the relative poverty of its citizens affords them little means to oppose powerful corporations. The town sits nestled against the eastern border of Ohio, considered the most critical of the Midwestern swing states by some election analysts.

Nader touted an Ohio poll conducted last spring in which state voters deemed him the most credible of the four leading presidential candidates.

"You'll get a lot more respect in Washington if you produce a Green Party victory here in East Liverpool," Nader told the crowd. "The only thing politicians understand is being denied votes."

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