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Fire resistant: 'Why I went to jail to protect my daughter from toxic polluters'

Terri Swearingen

1st December, 2004

How far would you go to fight plans for a new waste incinerator? One woman went all the way...

We’ve learned that the agencies set up to protect public health and the environment do so only if it’s not threatening to any corporation

I am a registered nurse, but my most important credential is that I am a mother. Although I’m not a scientist and I don’t have a PhD, maybe I should have a few letters following my name: NMBS: no more bullshit.

I live with my family in the Ohio River valley, where I’ve been involved in an effort to stop one of the world’s largest commercial toxic-waste incinerators, run by a firm called Waste Technologies Industries (WTI). It’s located in the food plain on the banks of the Ohio River, in an impoverished, minority Appalachian river town. It’s in a residential area where the closest home is only 320 feet away. WTI’s smokestack is level with the front doors and windows of a 400-pupil elementary school that sits on a bluff above the site just 1,100 feet away. While we haven’t stopped WTI yet, we have been successful. Our efforts have halted other commercial incinerators from being built around the country. Because of our efforts, Ohio enacted a moratorium on the construction of new hazardous-waste incinerators across the state.

We motivated Congress to conduct its first ever hearings to look at the ways the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bent the rules to help the industries it’s supposed to regulate. We prompted a nationwide freeze on construction of new toxic-waste incinerators and forced an overhaul of federal combustion regulations, including the development of more stringent limits for toxic heavy metals and a first-time emission limit for dioxin. We compelled the federal government to acknowledge the serious risk that pollution poses to our food chain. More recently, citizens working to stop WTI have been credited as the driving force behind the EPA’s action to implement national siting standards for hazardous-waste management facilities. I’d like to share with you some of the strategies we used to achieve these successes and offer a vision for the future to prevent the continued poisoning of the planet.

I first learned about WTI in 1982. What caught my attention was that it was legally allowed to release 4.7 tons of lead into the air annually. Lead is a poison that is particularly harmful to the fragile developing brains and nervous systems of children. Any lead released into the environment is cause for concern, but when it is raining down on children, that’s criminal. In 1984 Ohio passed a law prohibiting the construction of any hazardous-waste management facility within 2,000 feet of any home, school, hospital or prison, or within the ood plain of the Ohio River. WTI was not built until 1991, seven years after that law was enacted. A congressional hearing on WTI was held in 1992, and two major problems were identied. First, a site so close to homes and an elementary school poses an undue risk to an impoverished minority community.

Second, WTI’s permits are invalid, and rules were not followed. Top EPA officials admitted before Congress that they’d violated their own laws in issuing the permit, but they nonetheless allowed its continued operation. We’ve learned that the agencies set up to protect public health and the environment do so only if it’s not threatening to any corporation. It seems to be the government versus the people; multinationals versus the planet; and consultants versus common sense. People don’t want these dangerous facilities, but the government does. Who’s driving this process? Multinational corporations that generate too much waste, and the multinational waste companies that want to prot from that pollution. How do they get away with it? The machinery of government is directed against the people, not in the interests of the people. Multinational corporations work against the interests of the planet. How do they get away with it?

Incredibly highly paid consultants versus common sense. Here in the US we show off the Statue of Liberty and talk about America as the greatest country in the world, but in reality the culture is all about money. WTI puts American children at risk in violation of the law to promote the financial interests of the money men behind their project. Money can make black white, round at, dioxin safe enough to eat on your cereal, and having an incinerator 1,100 feet from an elementary school perfectly healthy. It can buy politicians, regulators, lawyers and presidents. But it isn’t just a few people at the top who want to corrupt the system. Evil doesn’t occur because of one monstrous personality.

One or two evil people can corrupt a system only when there are hundreds of smaller faceless players helping to carry out the same agenda. Evil happens when good people rationalise fudging the truth. We must hold them all accountable. We must name names. Any time elected officials, regulatory agents or industry employees are responsible for a decision that allows the poisoning of children, we should put their pictures on a poster detailing their dirty work and distribute it everywhere so we all know who are responsible.

In the US we need to recapture the country from the corporate interests that run our government. If we don’t demand accountability we’re going to lose our democracy. It took a decade for us to learn that working only within the system didn’t benefit the people. We pursued legal, political and economic strategies in our efforts to protect our children, with little effect. That’s when we engaged in a direct-action campaign, which included peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience. We broke the law to prevent our government from breaking the law. We broke the law because we found the state of Ohio breaking its own law, which was meant to protect citizens with a 2,000-foot buffer zone around dangerous facilities. When our own government was not obeying the law, we had to break the law to draw its attention to the injustices being committed by business. I’ve been arrested a dozen times, and I’ve spent many days in jail, including in Washington DC.

Our first act of civil disobedience resulted in arrests. In 1991, following a rally attended by about 1,500 citizens, 33 people, including actor Martin Sheen, climbed the fence surrounding WTI’s Ohio plant. Of course we were arrested and thrown in jail. But for me personally it felt so good to go over that fence, to know that I was upholding a higher law, that I was working to protect my community’s children. I was trying to uphold the law of human decency. I crossed the line because government and business crossed the line from a trust in people and democracy to a worship of technocracy and money. I crossed the line because they crossed the line between human values and human exploitation.

A week later we travelled three and a half hours to the state capitol in Columbus dressed in striped prison garb to issue wanted posters for the real criminal: former Ohio governor George Voinovich. The very bottom of the posters read, ‘Eyes blind to the facts, ears deaf to the calls of the citizens. If you see this man, do not try to “comprehend” alone.’ When governor Voinovich refused repeated attempts to meet with us and continued instead to defend WTI, we went to his mansion and posted for sale signs on his lawn. We arrived at his home later than expected, catching him at home. As he jumped into a waiting car, we asked to speak to him. His response was, ‘I have nothing to say.’ When reporters asked for comments, without thinking I just blurted out, ‘He’s a weenie. He lacks the guts to face his constituents.’ To my embarrassment, the quote not only appeared in the next day’s paper; it was highlighted. So we decided to have fun with that. We used a hot dog to symbolise governor Voinovich as ‘a weenie on waste’. We had a weenie roast in front of his mansion, and I got to be the weenie governor. I dressed in a hot dog costume with a mask of the governor. I don’t remember the exact words of my presentation, but it went something like this: ‘Frankly, I don’t relish the pickle I’m in. I need to mustard the courage to ketchup with front-end solutions. I feel like a weenie, squeezed between a bun. It’s no picnic being in this position. I think I’m going to get roasted.’

We got a lot of media attention. We got our message out and we had fun doing it. We kept up the weenie campaign for about a year. In fact, we never went to Columbus without delivering the governor a hot dog from the vendors outside the capitol. We had stickers made with the governor’s phone number on a picture of a hot dog that said, ‘If you think the governor’s a weenie on waste, call him.’ We went into all the grocery stores in Columbus and put those stickers on all the packages of buns and hot dogs. But one of the funniest weenie actions happened by accident. We heard that the governor was about to hold a press conference to announce his – get this – opposition to a toxic labelling law that would have required labelling for ingredients in products that cause birth defects and cancer. He was opposing it. So we hid foot-long hot dogs under our coats and entered the press conference. When the governor took the podium, we pulled out our hot dogs and silently waved them in the air. The next day’s newspaper headlines were hysterical: ‘Weenie-wielding women whack Voinovich on waste’; ‘Wieners cause walkout’; ‘Weenie protesters dog Voinovich’. But the tactic was effective. The following month governor Voinovich announced a statewide moratorium on all new incinerators, which continues to this day.

Then, following the election of Bill Clinton as US president in 1992, vice-president elect Al Gore issued a press release pledging to stop WTI’s operations. It was the very first environmental issue addressed by the new Clinton-Gore team. But after the inauguration nothing happened. The new administration failed to keep its word. In the spring of 1993 we participated in a month-long Greenpeace-sponsored bus tour of 25 toxic hot spots in 18 US states. The tour culminated in Washington DC, where we parked a mock incinerator, complete with a smokestack belching clouds of mock toxic emissions, right in front of the White House. We tied up traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue for more than six hours until police, using jackhammers, managed to free us from the cement-lled incinerator. We spent the night in jail, but the very next day EPA chief Carol Browner announced an 18-month nationwide moratorium on hazardous-waste incinerators and a plan to overhaul and strengthen federal combustion policies. But WTI was exempted from the moratorium and is operating to this day. As our government continues to allow WTI to release daily emissions of dioxins, mercury and lead, hundreds of schoolchildren spend their elementary school years breathing in those vile by-products. Our struggle is yet unnished.

We have to keep the pressure on until WTI is closed permanently. The laws and bureaucracies don’t work unless we make them work. We have rights; unfortunately, we have to fight for them. How do we prevent this problem of waste in the rst place? Zero waste represents a global vision of sustainability. Zero waste is a way of bringing to reality people’s desire to live on the planet in the way that nature intended, in a sustainable way, to live within the limits of the biosphere, not to dominate the biosphere. We have to look at the way nature exists. All the rest of her species have lived for millions and millions of years within this delicate biosphere. How does she do it? She constantly taps into the energy from the sun, and she doesn’t make any waste. Zero waste. Nature recycles everything. So can we.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2004

 

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