The town that haunts Al Gore

How an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, pollutes the vice president's reputation as a friend of the earth.

Published April 26, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Vice President Al Gore has been spending a lot of time in the classroom lately for his much-hyped "school days," throwing himself into the exercise with characteristic fervor.

On the night of April 10, Gore slept at the home of an Avondale Elementary School kindergarten teacher in Columbus, Ohio. The next day he toured the school with the principal, greeted students at breakfast, visited with parents, popped into classrooms, ate lunch with students and then thanked everyone at an all-school assembly. He even co-taught a fifth-grade math class and a first-grade language arts/writing course that was studying Earth Day.

There's another Ohio elementary school, 174 miles away, where Gore is unlikely to spend much time. And you can't fault him for not wanting to go to East Elementary, in East Liverpool, Ohio, located just 1,100 feet from the Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) hazardous-waste incinerator.

The WTI incinerator burns about 70,000 tons of hazardous waste each year, just 320 feet from the nearest house. The incinerator is a problem that Gore promised to solve, as a vice presidential candidate in 1992 and again right after he was elected. And it's that commitment environmentalists and Ohio River Valley activists now refer to as "Al Gore's first broken promise."

WTI stands in a flood plain, where waters can rise suddenly and spread toxins immediately. "The very idea ... is just unbelievable to me," Gore said on July 19, 1992, at a speech in nearby Weirton, W.Va. (Listen to Al Gore.) "I'll tell you this, a Clinton-Gore administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We'll be on your side for a change." (Listen to Al Gore.)

Has that happened? "Absolutely not," says Terri Swearingen, a 43-year-old nurse from West Virginia. Swearingen, who lives less than two miles from the incinerator, is an unapologetic fanatic about the issue; she's been arrested nine times for protesting WTI -- at the White House, in East Liverpool, wherever and whenever she can.

(Despite repeated attempts, no one at WTI could be reached for comment for this story.)

"I'm so angry, I'm shaking," she says during a phone interview. "Al Gore was supposed to be the environmental hero, but meanwhile I have a toxic-waste incinerator in my backyard."

"It's an area of vulnerability for him, East Liverpool," concedes Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which is committed to supporting Gore for president. "He's said some things personally about it." Pope says the WTI issue could hurt Gore a bit, though he will be helped on the environmental issue in general in comparison with his likely GOP opponent, George W. Bush, by most accounts an environmental disaster. "Al Gore is not John Muir, I mean, let's be honest. But he's running against George W. Bush, after all."

Environmental activists in East Liverpool weren't always taking issue with Gore. In December 1992, Vice President-elect Gore backed up his campaign promise to "be on your side, for a change" with a statement that reassured Swearingen and others in the area that he had been sincere. It was the last time they would think that.

"Serious questions concerning the safety of an East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous-waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation," Vice President-elect Gore declared. "The new Clinton-Gore administration would not issue the plant a test burn permit until ... all questions concerning the compliance with state and federal law have been answered.

"The potential impact on the people of this community -- on their health, on their children's health, on the investment they have made in their homes and businesses -- is too great to proceed without study and caution," Gore said.

But changing the system always seems easier before you become co-opted by it. More than seven years later, on April 10, the night before Gore hit Avondale Elementary in Columbus, he spoke in front of about 250 undecided voters at Vandalia-Butler High School, just north of Dayton. There, Jane Forrest Redfern, environmental-projects director for Ohio Citizen Action, asked Gore to give a yes or no to whether he, if elected president, would shut down WTI's hazardous-waste incinerator.

"Most of the options available to us were taken away from us by a last-minute decision by the Bush-Quayle administration," Gore replied. "But I have asked EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency], and they have agreed, to do a full-scale review of this ... I think the review will uncover enough information on which to base a rational decision."

Not exactly "We shall overcome." Not even "On your side, for a change." But Gore's critics say that his newfound pragmatism on WTI isn't even based in fact. Clinton-Gore overturned other last-minute decisions by the Bush administration, they point out, and while the Bush administration had indeed set the wheels in motion for the approval of WTI's incinerator, critics say Gore had plenty of opportunities to hinder the process.

Now the Ohio River Valley and the environmental community are strewn with Gore detractors who say he promised to do everything he could to keep the hazardous waste from entering their air, food and water, and then sat back and did nothing while the incinerator opened and began spewing forth. They are angry. And some of them are sick.

Health problems are not new to East Liverpool, a depressed area, and it's impossible to say how many were caused specifically by WTI's toxic emissions, how many were exacerbated by them and how many would have occurred anyway.

Robert Indian, chief of community health assessment for the Ohio Department of Health, notes that a cancer mortality analysis from 1992-'96 showed East Liverpool with a much higher rate of cancer deaths (242.9 per 100,000) than the surrounding county (182.6), Ohio (182.9) and the United States (170.8).

This, Indian says, was due to smoking and poor nutrition more than anything else. WTI, he says, "hasn't been there long enough to have played a role." Additionally, he says, "It's a state-of-the-art incinerator."

But the health problems of a poor community can often become a vicious circle when hazardous-waste incinerators are brought to the area to save it. After all, as David Ozonoff, chairman of the environmental health division of the Boston University School of Public Health, who has testified against WTI, notes, "They tend not to put incinerators like this in Grosse Point, Mich., or Chevy Chase, Md."

A local surgeon, who asked not to be named, says that he doesn't think WTI is directly to blame for the high cancer rate, which predates its construction. But, he says, "If I had to guess, I would say that it has worsened conditions."

There is anecdotal evidence, at the very least. The surgeon knows of three specific cases in the town of East Liverpool, with a population of fewer than 13,000, of male breast cancer -- a disease much rarer in the rest of the country. (About 1,600 cases of male breast cancer will be diagnosed, and 400 related deaths are projected, for the entire nation this year.)

"I've been in town since the fall of 1991," says the surgeon. "When I went into practice, I remember my trainers telling me that generally a surgeon should see one, or at most two, cases of male breast cancers in his entire life. Well, I've seen three already." He says he has also seen examples of "very aggressive" breast cancers in women who are uncommonly young for the disease, in their late 20s or early 30s.

Additionally, there are two unrelated little boys, both around 3 years old, who have had to have eyes removed because they suffered from retinoblastoma, or eye tumors, according to Ted Hill, a family practice physician, Swearingen's younger brother and an anti-WTI activist.

"Retinoblastoma has an incidence of about one in every 13,000 to 14,000 births," says Hill, whose practice has treated one of the boys. "In a town of 13,000 people total, to have two of them with retinoblastoma, I'm sure that's significant. Though I'm also sure that the EPA would rationalize that away or find some justification for it."

"One [incident] you can have," concurs Ozonoff. "But once you have more than one, then you have to start asking, 'How did that happen?'"

Though Gore allies are quick to paint Swearingen as just another NIMBY-crying housewife -- and they now bar her from Gore's Ohio rallies -- there are plenty in the medical community who are willing to back up her emotions with scientific testimony. According to WTI itself, a worst-case accident at the incinerator could release 100,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the immediate area, threatening the population within four miles of the facility.

When the $140 million plant was first proposed for the corner of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the early 1980s, locals rejoiced.

"I used to be a supporter," says Alonzo Spencer, a 71-year-old retired steelworker whose wife taught at the school, which sits about three blocks from their home. "I thought it would increase our tax base, and provide additional jobs. Who could be against that?"

WTI was to provide a $3.5 million payroll in addition to around $2 million in tax revenues -- and plenty of locals remain believers in WTI. Back then, health concerns were pooh-poohed. "Townspeople were told only water vapor and other innocuous emissions would exit the stack," reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Part of those "innocuous emissions" turned out to include acid gases like hydrogen chloride; potentially lethal, highly toxic contaminants known as dioxins; and metals like mercury, lead and chromium. Just months after WTI received its 1984 permit to begin building, Ohio passed a law requiring that any future incinerator be built a minimum distance of 2,000 feet from any home or place of business. WTI, however, was exempted under a grandfather clause, and it commenced building less than 400 feet from a home.

WTI supporters like Spencer started hearing about the potentially harmful effects of WTI on the kids at the school. He started hearing that the location of East Liverpool was remarkably unsuited for a hazardous-waste incinerator. Under EPA guidelines for "incompatible land use," adopted years later in 1997, there would be at least four -- out of eight possible -- reasons why East Liverpool would probably not be an appropriate place for the incinerator.

As Gore noted in '92, East Liverpool is located on a flood plain, meaning it's an area subject to a 1 percent or greater chance of flooding the incinerator and spreading toxins. Second, East Liverpool frequently experiences what are known as "temperature inversions," meaning the air higher in the atmosphere is often warmer than that close to the earth, which is uncommon. This means that instead of warm air rising -- like, say, smoke from a hazardous-waste incinerator -- it stays closer to the ground.

Third, WTI also sits on the banks of the Ohio River, from which, downstream, thousands get their drinking water.

Last, and most pressing, is the proximity of the students at East Elementary School. After all, as EPA's new guidelines instructed in 1997, "Sensitive populations such as the elderly, children and the sick are more affected by toxic exposures."

Ozonoff notes, "The purpose of bringing hazardous wastes into the plant is to eliminate them. But in actuality, some of them -- like metals -- you can't eliminate." The volume of the mercury and lead is reduced, he says, but it either joins "the ash in the incinerator or goes up the chimney. Those are the only two places it can go."

And this is in a best-case scenario. What if there were a mishap? Within the first year of its operation, after all, WTI reported excess emissions from what it was permitted to release under EPA regulations, including hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

The plan at the school in case of an emergency -- and the EPA identified more than 25 such possible accident scenarios -- is that all the kids be herded into the cafeteria. In a segment on CBS's "60 Minutes" from 1994, correspondent Steve Croft asked school superintendent Tom Ash what the next step of this plan would be.

"After we have them in there [the cafeteria], to try to seal it as tightly as we possibly can," Ash said.

"With what?" Croft asked.

"Close the doors; you'd use duct tape, I suppose, on the outside -- anything you can possibly do."

Then again, none of this was supposed to happen. Al Gore was going to save them. "We certainly thought that he would intervene," says Spencer. "We took him at his word." So how did a man derided by President Bush as "Ozone" end up on the enemies list of so many environmentalists?

After Gore became vice president he pledged that WTI couldn't even begin its test burn until the General Accounting Office investigated the permit process. But then something happened. Inside the walls of the Clinton-Gore White House, WTI became more of an annoyance than a cause.

On Jan. 8, 1993, in the waning days of the Bush presidency, EPA head Bill Riley told WTI to go ahead and conduct its test-burn -- even without the analysis by the GAO. Gore immediately began blaming the whole thing on Bush. "We know the problem's there, but our hands are tied," said Gore spokeswoman Marla Romash in early 1993.

But Swearingen says Riley told her a story that contradicts Gore's claim that this is all a problem caused by Bush-Quayle. In the early days of the Clinton administration, the story goes, before Clinton's newly appointed EPA administrator, Carol Browner, had been confirmed, Riley had asked Katie McGinty, a top Gore environmental advisor, what the new administration wanted done regarding the WTI permit process.

Swearingen says that Riley claimed he was instructed by McGinty to go ahead and grant WTI its permit to conduct its test burn. Asked about the story, McGinty says, "I don't remember any such conversation." Riley, meanwhile, refused comment on it to Salon.

If the story is true, it flies in the face of Gore's repeated explanation that this was all the dirty work of the previous administration. But with one participant claiming amnesia and the other keeping quiet, such a story carries only so much weight.

Still, Gore's hands were not as tied as he pretended then or now.

If Clinton and Gore felt WTI was safe, that would be one thing; but they feigned helplessness. They were not so helpless when, around the same time, they supported a federal court ruling requiring the National Science Foundation to further study the environmental impact of two incinerators about to be built at the South Pole. Or when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt nullified a last-minute decision by Bush Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to sell 1,000 acres of federal land in California to San Bernardino County for a nuclear waste dump.

More to the point, as soon as Gore swore to uphold the duties of his office, there were any number of instances when the White House could have stepped up and halted WTI's permit process.

But when it came to WTI, Gore and his staff seemed less than fully engaged, at least in the process. On Jan. 22, Gore spokeswoman Romash said the GAO investigation had begun. But the GAO's assistant director for hazardous waste issues reported on Feb. 1 that wasn't the case.

They could have at least tried to insist that WTI not begin burning until GAO came forward with its report, which it did in 1994, or until the EPA offered its risk assessment, which didn't come out until 1997.

And they certainly could have spoken up in March 1993, when WTI failed its test burn.

Twice, during its March '93 test burn, the incinerator didn't meet the standard with regard to carbon tetrachloride, achieving worse than the 99.99 percent "destruction and removal" efficiency as required by law. (Carbon tetrachloride is highly toxic to the liver and can cause liver cancer.)

During that test, the incinerator didn't meet the "expected efficiency" when it came to removing mercury -- indeed, it emitted almost five times more mercury than permitted. (Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning it causes damage to the central nervous system.)

The incinerator also exceeded the expected levels for emissions of dioxins, specifically polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans -- on average at levels 2.8 times higher than expected.

Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins are the specific contaminant used in Agent Orange. It is, according to Dr. Richard Clapp of Boston University's School of Public Health, "one of the most severely toxic chemicals ever created by humans, causing birth defects, cancer, immunological suppression and cardiovascular problems." Recently, an Air Force study postulated that polychlorinated dibenzodioxins can cause diabetes. Polychlorinated dibenzofurans "are not as widely studied," Clapp says, "but they're probably capable of doing the same thing."

And then -- bang, zoom -- WTI supposedly fixed the problems. On April 6, 1993, the EPA approved WTI's commercial operation.

Thus, WTI became the first hazardous-waste incinerator in history to be allowed to run despite having failed a test burn.

The public, however, was kept in the dark about WTI's various emission problems in March until after the EPA approved its commercial operation. It wasn't until April 12 that the public learned WTI had failed its test burn, and it wasn't until April 26 that the public learned WTI had released more than four times its permitted amount of mercury. The GAO later faulted the EPA for "not always giv[ing] the public an opportunity to comment."

In March 1993, Greenpeace and others successfully sued WTI and government regulators to prohibit commercial operation of the incinerator at least until the EPA issued its risk assessment, because it could substantially harm the health of locals. During the trial -- which they won, though the ruling was overturned by an appeals court that judged the U.S. District Court judge had ruled outside of her jurisdiction -- the Clinton-Gore administration sided with WTI, and members of the EPA and the Department of Justice testified on WTI's behalf.

Asked how Gore could claim that he'd done everything he could to stop WTI when his administration was officially siding in court on behalf of WTI, a Gore campaign spokesman referred me to the vice president's office. The office referred me to the EPA. EPA spokesman Tim Fields, assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, says he didn't work for the EPA at the time, so he couldn't comment. When asked for someone who could comment, the EPA never called me back.

In 1994, the GAO report came out, acknowledging imperfections in the WTI permit process but recommending that the incinerator stay open. By the end of 1995, the EPA published its draft risk assessment for the facility, deeming the risks "acceptable." Its final risk assessment, issued in 1997, concurred.

Thus, despite Gore's pre-election promise, the Clinton-Gore administration did everything it could "to stand up for" multimillion-dollar WTI, which by the mid-'90s was servicing the government by burning its hazardous waste. Not exactly "a change."

So why did the administration -- and, specifically, Gore -- change its position?

"The bottom line is the vice president has been 100 percent consistent on this issue," McGinty says. McGinty, at one point Gore's representative on the Council on Environmental Quality, says Gore "pushed the letter of the law to the maximum extent that federal law allows the vice president to insist on these things."

But others who were involved at the time -- and who still support Gore -- disagree.

Says a knowledgeable source who worked at the Clinton-Gore White House at the time, who asked not to be identified, "I couldn't understand [the reversal], either."

"To this day I don't know why the 180," says a former Gore Senate staffer, who also requested anonymity. "It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And you've got to feel bad for the community."

But on-the-record Gore supporters argue that nothing has changed. Former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a liberal Democrat and ardent supporter of Gore, was once a very vocal critic of WTI. "I think it was an impediment to the health of the community," says Metzenbaum, now chairman of Consumer Federation of America.

But when I ask him about Gore's turnaround on the issue, he demurs and asks for me to call him back after he's had time to look into the matter.

When I reach him, a few weeks later and back in D.C., he's back on the program. "You can't expect a national administration to be involved in every local controversy," he says. (Which may be the first time ever that Metzenbaum didn't advocate a federal solution to a problem.) "It doesn't indicate any lack of support for the underlying concerns of the people," the former senator says, "it just indicates that we live in a big country and the White House can't be involved in every local battle." Even if it promises to be.

Gore allies' cries to the contrary, the administration unquestionably changed its tune, and there is rampant speculation as to why.

One recurring theory: simple incompetence. In early 1993, McGinty called a meeting of Democratic Senate staffers active on the WTI issue -- according to one who was present at the meeting, held in Gore's Senate office -- to "try to figure out what the issue was. Clinton and Gore had wanted to win Ohio, so Gore opened up his mouth on the issue. His staff was playing catch-up on what to do."

Additionally, this staffer, a Gore supporter, reports that White House staffers were encountering tremendous resistance from career EPA staffers on numerous issues. "Career folks in the EPA were defending the Bush administration's position, the White House was trying to establish a relationship with the agencies, very few political appointees were in place," the staffer says.

New EPA appointee Browner recused herself from the issue, since she had connections to anti-WTI activists, so she left the matter in the hands of career bureaucrats. The timing was bad, the staffer says.

Gore's heart had been in the right place, the staffer continues, but "it was a campaign promise made without strategy; I'm certain of that. As with gays in the military, it was not something they were able to come into office and accomplish immediately. There was too much money and power on the other side."

And bad press. It's easy to forget how immediately beleaguered the Clinton team was. The new president's first issue, hanging like an albatross, was gays in the military. And Clinton's opponents were quick to paint Gore and Browner -- Gore's pick, after all -- as crazy environmentalists. Almost from Day 1, the administration was playing defense.

WTI spokeswoman Julia Burcher claimed Gore's December 1992 promise "flies in the face of the Clinton-Gore campaign for jobs, economic revitalization and environmental cleanup." Marc Hoffrichter, head of an East Liverpool task force to renovate the downtown area, called Gore's pledge a "payoff to the left wing." This is "how he's paying off the radical liberals of his party," he said.

Soon other newspapers bought the WTI argument -- during a recession -- that Clinton and Gore were siding with the environment over jobs. The Washington Post judged the controversy "the first test of how the Clinton-Gore administration will balance the twin goals of job creation and environmental protection."

"I think what happened is when they got into Washington, the new administration felt they were seen as too green," says Rick Hind, director of legislative affairs for Greenpeace. "So they decided to sacrifice East Liverpool."

The third explanation for the turnabout on WTI was also pointed out by critics across the political spectrum: Mother Jones magazine, in the fall of 1993, and later, the American Spectator, both found a plausible explanation for the administration's actions by examining the actual money trail.

The Clintons had close ties to powerful Arkansan Jackson T. Stephens -- whose company, Stephens Inc., helped finance the company that built the incinerator.

Stephens Inc. raised more than $100,000 for Clinton-Gore and its bank subsidiary gave the campaign a $3.5 million line of credit. Stephens sold its interest in the company in 1990, but under the agreement Stephens made with the original business partners, the Morgan Guarantee Trust Co. -- which helped handle the $128 million financing of the Stephens investment -- Stephens remained liable for its investment.

"The best way to understand what happens in Washington is to follow the money," Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistle-blower, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993. "With WTI, all money roads lead to Jack Stephens."

Fields, the EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, says that anyone looking for reasons for administration inaction is missing the point. "The community is not at risk," he says. "The incinerator is being operated properly."

But there have been mishaps, and not just the environmental kind.

Complicating the landscape even more is a grand jury investigation into whether employees of the North Ohio Valley Air Authority accepted payoffs for looking the other way on environmental problems.

NOVAA was the two-headed organization charged both with overseeing WTI on behalf of the Ohio EPA, for which it was paid $847,000 a year, and with working for WTI as a client, making sure that its incinerator was functioning properly, for which WTI paid NOVAA more than $350,000 a year.

WTI and its records have been subpoenaed in the investigation, which is ongoing.

On March 24, Richard Canestraro, former executive director of NOVAA, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Patsy J. DeLuca, whom Canestraro succeeded as former executive director of NOVAA, in unlawfully accepting almost $170,000 in bribes from '94 through '96. DeLuca, his son, and a NOVAA technician have also pleaded guilty to accepting or aiding and abetting these bribes.

The charges allege a number of fishy deals involving NOVAA and possibly even WTI. After NOVAA began inspecting WTI, and WTI officials reportedly found the relationship with the organization somewhat hostile, DeLuca supposedly told WTI executives to hire an Ohio lobbyist, Anthony Fabiano, to the tune of $27,000 a month. WTI also hired NOVAA to conduct special environmental studies, at least one of which -- costing $100,000 -- never was received by WTI. WTI officials deny that these were payoffs, saying that WTI was merely trying to appease critics by environmentally going over and above what was required of it by law.

According to an account published in the Akron Beacon Journal, "EPA records show data collected the first year NOVAA contracted with WTI was so flawed it could not be used. Weather and wind data showed wind blowing in the wrong directions. The stack monitor at WTI, intended to provide emission data directly to EPA via telemetry hookup, had not worked properly from the incinerator's start-up in December 1992. EPA then learned in 1994 that the system's computers had been programmed to prevent them from providing correct data."

If NOVAA isn't doing its job properly, for whatever reason, there are repercussions. The optimistic assessment in the GAO report states that "stack emissions from the incinerator should not present an unreasonable risk to human health, provided the facility complies with all emissions standards imposed." (NOVAA is now out of business, and the EPA is back in charge of inspecting the work of its pals at WTI.)

"People are frustrated, we know," the EPA's Fields says of the fact that WTI remains up and running despite all the questions about its safety. "But government officials can't always move as quickly as we want."

In January of this year, a number of East Liverpudlians and enviros planned to make a stink right before the New Hampshire primary. Preparing for the demonstration before the primary, the Gore team got to them before their protest went public, and on a cellphone at the Motel 6 in Tewksbury, N.H., Greenpeace's Hind spoke with Dan Sakura of the Council on Environmental Quality. The White House agreed to let EPA ombudsman Robert Martin make an independent expedited review of whether WTI's permit should be revoked.

"So we agreed to call it off for the time being," Hind says. "They wouldn't agree to adopt all of Martin's proposals. But the fact is, we did get more movement than we did in seven years."

Since that time, however, the activists have heard that the ombudsman's review may be delayed from Mother's Day to around October -- hardly "expeditious." They have also heard that the Gore team also wants to pick who is on Martin's staff -- hardly "independent."

"I'm sympathetic to the concern of parents frightened by WTI operating so close to the school," McGinty says. "But the thing is operating only because it met standards the federal government is allowed to enforce." Asked about Swearingen, Hind and the off-the-record Gore staffers who acknowledged Gore's flip-flop on the issue, McGinty says, "I would question the degree to which those folks are genuinely informed."

What about EPA environmental scientist David Cleverly, who stated that he would never allow his children to attend East Elementary School? I ask McGinty if she would send her kids to the school.

She doesn't answer the question, instead repeating that it's perfectly safe.

I ask her again; she does the same thing.

I ask her a third time.

"Yeah, I think I would," she finally says. "Because I know personally the rigor of the analysis. And also because WTI was held to higher and tougher standards. I think there were some test burns that failed, so WTI was forced to shut down and improve its facilities. So now it's even better."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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