Waste Debate Divides Ohio Town Argument over Jobs versus Clean Air Shows an Environmental Debate Gone to Extremes
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
EAST Liverpool is a town that lost the middle ground.
For 12 years, residents have fought each other over a proposed hazardous-waste incinerator. It now appears that the plant will not open, after all; but this Ohio River city is exhausted and divided by its long ordeal. East Liverpool is an example of an environmental debate gone wrong.
"It's another cornerstone for creating a polarization of environment versus industry," says Joe Heimlich, an environmental education professor at Ohio State University's School of Natural Resources. "We're automatically set up for a lose-lose situation."
"Either fire it up or close it down," says Sarah Wilson, the local city councilwoman who heads the city's incinerator liaison committee. "I want a final decision to be made so we can get on with our lives."
The extremes are sharply drawn because each side has so much invested in the outcome.
Supporters want the incinerator, run by Waste Technologies Industries, because it means jobs. East Liverpool, like many communities along the Ohio River, is economically depressed.
Waste Technologies promises to hire 125 people, not counting the construction jobs already generated; pay $1.7 million a year in local taxes; and pump an extra $600,000 annually into the city in fees.
In mid-December, the company and community supporters ran advertisements in the New York Times and other national newspapers to call attention to the city's economic plight. The ads were headlined: "Please Mr. President-Elect, Give Our Town Hope." Many of the supporters are business owners.
But the idea of a waste incinerator incenses residents who would have to live by it. The plant sits on a broad, flat bank of the Ohio River. High up on a bluff, overlooking the plant, stand a row of houses and, across the street, an elementary school.
Residents there argue that the plant, just 400 feet from their homes and 1,100 feet from the school, could release harmful pollutants into the air.
"Incineration is not an answer to our hazardous-waste problem," says Alonzo Spencer, president of the Save Our County organization. The group formed in the mid-1980s to stop the plant. "We hope they shut this facility down, tear it down, and move it out."
That may be what happens.
Until this month, Waste Technologies seemed on the verge of starting operations. It survived a court challenge last month in West Virginia, which lies just across the river. The plant is undergoing tests for an all-important trial burn, planned for early next year.
But on Dec. 7, Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr. appeared to scotch those plans. He said the new administration would not issue a permit for Waste Technologies' trial burn until the General Accounting Office (GAO), an arm of Congress, had conducted a thorough review. …