Few political promises seemed more emphatic, or less potentially troublesome to fulfill, than Albert Gore Jr.'s of Dec. 7, 1992.
At issue was the world's largest hazardous waste incinerator, a behemoth in East Liverpool, Ohio, on the borders of West Virginia and Pennsylvania and looming 100 yards from homes and 400 yards from an elementary school. The $160 million Waste Technologies Industries incinerator, which has a capacity to burn 60,000 tons of waste a year and emit dioxin, lead and other poisons into an Ohio River Valley atmosphere already burdened by air inversions, is owned by Von Roll, a Swiss multinational. Limited operation began in April.
A broad coalition of incinerator opponents -- local citizens, labor unions, national environmental groups, churches -- has become the major political and moral force to require the federal government to revoke the permit that was issued in the Reagan-Bush years when lax regulations on burning hazardous wastes prevailed.
In his December Senate statement, Gore was following through on earlier pledges to act that he and Bill Clinton made while campaigning in that area of the Midwest. The incinerator issue was a natural for Gore. It allowed him both to attack the let-it-burn, trust-industry policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations and position himself as clean and green. "For the safety and health of local residents rightfully concerned about the impact of this incinerator on their families and their future," Gore stated, "a thorough investigation is urgently needed. Too many questions remain unanswered about the impact of this incinerator and the process by which it was approved."
Gore, along with the six senators from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, asked the General Accounting Office to investigate whether regulatory shortcuts were involved in the 10 years since the Environmental Protection Agency issued the company an operating permit. Gore himself, speaking with the bluntness that won him praise as the Senate's ranking environmentalist, said, "Until all questions concerning compliance with state and federal law have been answered, it doesn't make sense to grant any permit" to burn. "The potential impact on the people of this community . . . is too great to proceed without study and caution."
Stirring words. Except that is all they are. The permit was not revoked. Two months into office, Gore began yodeling like an apologist for the Swiss multinational and a cold betrayer of the local citizens fearing for their health. The original decisions, he said in March, to sanction the plant "were made principally and almost exclusively during the last administration and that incurred certain legal obligations on the part of the federal government toward the company that had invested tens of millions of dollars."
Now it is the corporate ledger to be protected. "Earth in the Balance," the title of Gore's best-selling book, had become "Profits in the Balance." The vice president's argument now is that "the EPA has certain legal obligations that it just can't reverse." That evokes astonishment in Terri Swearingen, a nurse and East Liverpool opposition leader. "Don't insult my intelligence. If Clinton and Gore say they're powerless, where's that leave us? The fact is, they have the legal authority to act."
As the incinerator's burning begins, burning of another kind is occurring in the Ohio Valley -- the heated anger of citizens put off by Gore's duplicity and EPA's legalistic evasions of responsibility. Residents have read -- and understand -- the language of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that empowers EPA to move against an incinerator if "imminent and substantial endangerment" to people's health and their environment is present.
If Gore and EPA officials have slinked off from the Ohio Valley citizens and the law that should be protecting them, Judge Ann Aldrich of the federal district for northern Ohio hasn't. On March 5, ruling in a case in which all sides -- company, government, citizens and environmentalists -- were heard, Aldrich wrote: "It is patently unsafe to subject the population exposed to the facility's emissions to the risks involved in incineration while the EPA determines what the risk is and what risk is acceptable."
This was a major citizens' victory, even though the judge's call to close the plant was stayed by an appellate court while her decision is appealed.
Those whose lives are at risk in the Ohio Valley -- Pittsburgh is 25 air-miles downwind -- are back where they were before the Big Promisers, Clinton and Gore, passed through mongering votes. As in the Reagan-Bush days when the incinerator was going up, the company has friends in the White House and the citizens do not.