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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

GOLDMAN PRIZE: AN ORGANIZER IS REWARDED

Air Date: Week of April 18, 1997

Since 1990, the Goldman Foundation of San Francisco has recognized local organizers with its annual Environmental Prize which includes a cash award. A winner is selected from each inhabited continent for work in a wide range of evironmental areas and the 1997 North American Goldman went to Terri Swearingen, a nurse and mother jailed repeatedly for leading demonstrations against a toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio where she persuaded the U-S Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its regulations for siting and operating hazardous waste facilities. Her efforts have also made the Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) plant one of the most closely monitored incinerators in the country and while it has stayed within the law, Swearengin tells Steve Curwood that she thinks the law has too many loopholes.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This week we mark the anniversary of the 27th Earth Day. It was April 22nd, 1970, when tens of millions of people gathered in cities and towns across the nation. They came together to celebrate the gift of the planet's living systems and to warn against their destruction. This year, far fewer people are marching in the streets, but demonstrations continue, led by grassroots activists who face imminent ecological threats in their communities. Since 1990, the Goldman Foundation of San Francisco has recognized outstanding organizers with its annual Environmental Prize. A winner is selected from each inhabited continent. People fighting for forest protection were named winners from South America, the South Pacific, and Asia. An activist against poaching won from Africa. And an engineer who warned of nuclear hazards in Russia won from Europe. The North American Goldman went to Terri Swearingen, who has been jailed repeatedly for leading demonstrations against a toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, that was built close to an elementary school. In 1993, Ms. Swearingen persuaded the US Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its regulations for siting and operating hazardous waste facilities. Her efforts have made the Waste Technologies Industries plant one of the most closely monitored incinerators in the country. It has stayed within the law, but as Terri Swearingen recently told me, she still thinks the law has too many loopholes.

SWEARINGEN: When I first found out about plans to build one of the world's largest toxic waste incinerators, I was working in a local doctor's office in East Liverpool, Ohio, where the incinerator was planned to be built. And at that time I was pregnant. And here I was about to bring a child into the world, when I first learned about this proposal. And it scared me. I mean, I -- somebody came into the office and said that the government would allow this facility to emit 4.7 tons of lead annually.

CURWOOD: Lead?

SWEARINGEN: To be raining down. Lead. Lead to be emitted from the stacks of this incinerator, to rain down on the children in this valley. And I thought that was preposterous. I thought that they had been mistaken in some way. But when I, you know, started to do research, I found out that they were absolutely correct. And the second thing is, this multinational Swiss corporation elected to build this facility just 1,100 feet from a 400-student elementary school. You just don't do that. You just don't burn and store toxic waste next door to where children attend school every day.

CURWOOD: So what did you do?

SWEARINGEN: I kind of worked behind the scenes until about 1990, when they actually started building. But the reason that I didn't get real involved is, for one thing, I trusted the government. I just thought that if there was a threat, that they would be there to protect us. And then when they actually started building this facility in about 1990, I realized that you know, that may not be the case.

CURWOOD: What was the first active step you took to oppose? What did you do?

SWEARINGEN: Oh gosh, what didn't we do? We'd done just about everything. I think one of the first things we did was to look at the track record of the industry. There are only 18 other commercial hazardous waste incinerators in the country. But we looked at the track record and we found out that there is a history of fires, explosions, accidents, and that made us even more fearful because of the proximity of this particular incinerator to these homes and to the elementary school. They have an evacuation plan for the school, and do you know what it consists of? Plastic and duct tape! When there's an accident at this facility, there will be no time to evacuate those children, and so what they've done -- what it consists of is taking aluminum foil and wax paper and shoving it into all the cracks, putting plastic over the windows and the doors and taping it with duct tape and turning off the ventilation system. And, you know, it may just be more of a tomb to seal these children in.

CURWOOD: So you got really concerned and involved with the permitting process, and eventually this became a national story. In fact, during the 1992 Presidential race, didn't Bill Clinton and Al Gore speak up against this incinerator?

SWEARINGEN: Absolutely. They were in the Ohio Valley, and they called the siting of the WTI hazardous waste incinerator an unbelievable idea. And they said you know, you ought to have control over where these things are sited. And they even went so far as after the election, they put out a press release saying that they'd stop it. But guess what? They didn't do it. And so I think what has been revealed in all of this is that there are forces running this country that are far more powerful than the President and the Vice President of the United States. I mean, it's amazing that the likes of the Union Bank of Switzerland, you know, Vonrol, this multinational Swiss Corporation, and people like Jackson Stevens, a powerful investment banker from Arkansas, are more relevant to East Liverpool, Ohio, than the President of the United States.

CURWOOD: Now, the company says it has a clean record. It has not been cited for any kind of improper emissions. Is that true?

SWEARINGEN: Well, I can tell you that several years ago Governor Voynevich appropriated funds through the Ohio Department of Health to test the children to see how much lead they had in their blood before the incinerator started operating. And mercury, they did mercury, too. And then, you know, they were going to continue testing. And after the incinerator started, to kind of use the kids as monitors. And what they found is that, like, 69% of the kids showed no mercury in their urine. And then, following the WTI trial burn, during which time WTI dumped 29 pounds of mercury into the air, the numbers flipped, they reversed themselves. They found out that 66% of the children now had mercury in their urine.

CURWOOD: You're not finished yet, are you?

SWEARINGEN: Absolutely not! You know, I want President Clinton, for one thing, to come to East Liverpool, Ohio, and see with his own eyes where this is. And either tell us that it's okay or stop it. There is no power without responsibility. And he can say well, this is not a political issue. You know, I'm going to leave this to my agency, the EPA or whatever. But it was a political decision to allow it to be built there. It was a political decision to allow it to operate. And the buck stops with President Clinton.

CURWOOD: Terri Swearingen is this year's North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Living on Earth asked the White House to respond to Ms. Swearingen's request that President Clinton visit the East Liverpool, Ohio, incinerator. The White House declined to comment on the matter, deferring to the Environmental Protection Agency. An EPA spokeswoman told us that the Agency is in the process of addressing Ms. Swearingen's concerns. She also told us that while the EPA would prefer that incinerators not be located near schools, the WTI facility is operating within the parameters of the law.

 

 

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