One of the largest toxic waste incinerators in the world was built in East Liverpool, Ohio in the 1990s. Its location in a residential area along the Ohio River—in Pittsburgh's back yard—caused local opposition, national media attention, and even became a cause for celebrities. On this week's Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple revisits the controversy, and discovers why the smoke still hasn't cleared. It's part of our 20th anniversary celebration of regional environmental news.
OPEN: One of the largest toxic waste incinerators in the world was built in East Liverpool, Ohio in the 1990s. Its location in a residential area along the Ohio River--in Pittsburgh's back yard--caused local opposition, national media attention, and even became a cause for celebrities. On this week's Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple revisits the controversy, and discovers why the smoke still hasn't cleared. It's part of our 20th anniversary celebration of regional environmental news.
KAUFMAN: WTI is the first hazardous waste incinerator in the history of the country to be allowed to burn hazardous waste when they failed the test burn...
HOLSOPPLE: Hugh Kaufman was one of hundreds of activists protesting in front the White House against what is now known as the Heritage WTI toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. On that rainy November day in 1993, protesters said beyond problems with the test burns, the facility had been illegally placed in the community after incinerators built within 2000 feet of homes and schools were banned.
In 1997 nurse-turned-activist Terri Swearingen explained to The Allegheny Front that the East Liverpool incinerator was built only a few hundred feet from homes, and 1100 feet from an elementary school:
SWEARINGEN: The height of the WTI stack is 150 feet and it is level with the front doors and windows of that school. A ten year old could take a look at this scene and say--there's a problem here--this should never have been built here.
HOLSOPPLE: Swearingen won the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to shut down the incinerator and hold then Vice Presidential nominee Al Gore to his campaign promise to do the same--a promise he didn't deliver on after he took office.
A spokesperson for the company that operates the incinerator says it's annual emissions have been consistently 80% below EPA's standard for the industry. And that they've done a lot for the community over the years--including disposing of over 100 tons of hazardous household waste from the area through an annual drive.
But longtime resident Alonzo Spencer with East Liverpool's Save Our County says his group isn't convinced. They've been fighting the incinerator for over 20 years, and say it doesn't belong in their town. They point to missing air monitoring data, an explosion at the site, and permit violations just last year over mercury and dioxin levels after an industry test.
Though Ohio EPA says levels for toxic materials like lead and mercury are within acceptable levels, Spencer and his group say that's only part of the story:
SPENCER: When they are all coming out together, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out--what accumulative effect does that have on the health and safety of the community? We would like for that question to be answered.
HOLSOPPLE: But there are just more questions. Like why does Columbiana County--which includes East Liverpool--have one of the highest cancer risks in the state, according to an air toxics report released by Ohio EPA last year? Spencer and his group are hoping independent research yields some answers. A health study of kids in the area is already underway.
In 2009 USA Today reported that several East Liverpool schools had toxic air levels among the highest in the country--and the company operating the toxic waste incinerator was named as one of the polluters responsible.
All of this leaves Ohio Valley residents wary. Like Millie McLain. Taking a break outside of her East Liverpool office, she says she hasn't used her city's water--which comes from the river--since the incinerator was built:
MCLAIN: You don't really know what all is really being put into the plant, so you don't know what's coming out. Going into the water, going into the soil. You just donít know. It's kind of scary to me.
HOLSOPPLE: And more controversy is brewing. In November the company received a permit to incinerate explosives. They say no further pollution controls are required, but activists worry about trucks carrying new hazardous waste through their community.
For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.