With a rated burning capacity of sixty thousand tons a year and permission to nearly triple that intake with new construction, the hazardous-waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, is the largest such facility in the world, the largest in the country, or the second-largest in the country, depending on whom you ask. Despite its size, the incinerator is situated smack in the middle of East Liverpool, a small, depressed, industrial city of fewer than fourteen thousand people, located almost at the precise point where Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania meet.
Last December, Vice President-elect Al Gore made a highly specific promise that the incinerator (which was built by a partnership called Waste Technologies Industries) would not be permitted to operate until a full investigation had been completed, but he was either blowing smoke or else soon had dust thrown in his eyes. Once in office, the Clinton administration began the promised investigation but allowed the incinerator to operate anyway; it is operating as I write.
If the nation is unaware of East Liverpool’s plight, it is no fault of many highly vocal East Liverpudlians, their immediate neighbors in the surrounding countryside, the actor Martin Sheen (whose mother-in-law lives nearby), the nearby city of Pittsburgh, and the entire state of West Virginia, whose attorney general unsuccessfully brought a federal lawsuit to wipe the incinerator from the face of the earth. Local activists have occupied the White House, the state capitol, and the Washington headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency; gone on a hunger strike; compiled mountains of incriminating data; chained themselves to a replica of the incinerator and parked it opposite the office of the president of the United States; and gotten arrested for their protests.
But the incinerator keeps humming along. The consequences of its owners’ apparent manipulation of regulatory agencies reach far beyond the town of East Liverpool. It has become a watershed case for the environmental community: if a project as clearly dangerous and malfeasant as the East Liverpool incinerator can’t be stopped, then perhaps nothing can.
Over the course of an exhaustive investigation, Mother Jones uncovered problems with the East Liverpool incinerator literally too numerous to catalogue, but the following is a list of some of its more egregious shortcomings.
Operational problems (or, why it shouldn’t be where it is)
The incinerator is situated approximately four hundred yards from an elementary school, but many of those yards are vertical; the school is on a bluff just below the top of the smokestack, which is licensed to emit vaporized lead, mercury, and some three hundred other compounds. The incinerator is also three hundred feet from the nearest house, a quarter mile from a business college, and a stone’s throw from the Ohio River, a major source of drinking water for millions of people.
The facility is smack in the middle of a hundred-year floodplain.  Moreover, the site is in one of the nation’s premier atmospheric inversion areas, where the weather will cause it to blanket the region with emissions two days out of every three. 
When both kilns of the East Liverpool incinerator are up and running, Ohio will have more than one-fifth of the nation’s total hazardous- waste burning capacity. The builder of the facility, WTI, estimates that the incinerator will annually consume at least five thousand truckloads of toxins. All those trucks, which sometimes have accidents, will have to pass through the streets and right-of-ways of East Liverpool. 
A preliminary EPA study estimated that the toxic risk to the food chain (specifically beef cattle and milk) near the East Liverpool facility could pose a human cancer threat one thousand times greater than simple inhalation of emissions. (Greenpeace estimates that the risk is ten thousand times greater.) Last January, Richard Guimond, the acting assistant administrator of solid waste and emergency response, revealed this in a confidential memo to Carol Browner, President Clinton’s new EPA administrator. He also confided his worry that if the news about the food-chain situation in East Liverpool got around and the EPA adopted “indirect exposure analysis procedures,” “many air emission sources could be affected.” The memo, which the EPA did not make public, was leaked to Greenpeace.
Legal problems (or, rules are for little people)
The 1980 site-development permit specifically prohibited the handling of toxic wastes at the site. The incinerator got its start when a representative of Stephens Inc. (which was a partner in WTI) proposed to locate a revolutionary “waste-to-energy incinerator” (which a company brochure claimed would emit nothing but water vapor, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen) on the site (which was being bought with taxpayers’ money to build a public port on the Ohio River). The port authority agreed to lease out the land, even though it did not yet own it. Further, the port authority never signed the application or the permit as a co-owner, although the law specifically required it to do so. 
In 1983, an examiner for the state hazardous-waste board suggested that the incinerator’s application for an operating permit be rejected because, despite specific requirements, there were no plans for handling volatile waste; there were no plans for personnel training; there were no contingency plans in the event of a mishap; there was no plan for closing it; and the builders planned to reveal their full intentions when it would be too late to hold public hearings. (The board issued the permit anyway, in April 1984, four months before changes in Ohio’s siting criteria would have made permitting the incinerator impossible.)
By the most conservative estimates, the four partner companies that signed the incinerator’s original permit application changed their names some nine times between 1981 and 1990. According to other estimates, the changes number more than forty, filling a chart only slightly smaller than the average bathroom floor.
In 1987, when Chemical Waste Management (ChemWaste) placed a bid to buy out the Waste Technologies Industries partners’ stock, the Ohio EPA initially took the position that no permit modification was necessary. The decision was curious for two reasons: first, ChemWaste would have been unambiguously a new owner of the proposed facility and should have been required to obtain a permit modification and undergo public hearings; and second, ChemWaste and its parent company, Waste Management, Inc., are odd recipients of the benefit of the doubt, as both have glaring records of criminal conduct and environmental negligence.
After ChemWaste retracted its bid in 1989, Von Roll America, one of the original partners, bought out the other three but pretended that the partnership still existed in order to avoid permit complications. Although the federal EPA investigated in 1992, a confidential memo suggests that they secretly decided to uphold the permit before completing the investigation. 
The incinerator failed its March 1993 test burn.  Among other shortcomings, its efficiency rating for burning mercury was only 7 percent, as opposed to the required 99.99 percent.
An April 1993 inspection of the facility revealed numerous violations. For example, employees had failed to store some of the hazardous waste in closed containers and were not monitoring the underlying soil conditions, although cracks had already appeared in the incinerator’s foundations.
In late June, after a three-year investigation, the Ohio attorney general issued a heavily censored report concluding that, yes, because of all the ownership changes, under state law the incinerator permit was invalid after all. Nonetheless, on August 24, the U.S. EPA ruled that although Von Roll wrongfully failed to register the 1989 ownership change, this did not invalidate the incinerator’s operating permit. The EPA just fined Von Roll $64,900 for failing to modify the permit.
On July 28, an EPA whistle-blower charged two senior EPA administrators with fraud for allowing the incinerator to operate despite the decision of the Ohio attorney general. In a memo to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Hugh Kaufman, whose job is to act as an internal watchdog at the EPA, claimed that Deputy Administrator Robert Sussman and Region 5 Director Valdus Adamkus modified the incinerator’s permit to grant it “temporary authorization” to operate, even though they knew the permit was legally invalid. He called for a criminal investigation into Sussman, Adamkus, and the “business entities” running the incinerator. (The federal Justice Department has had no comment on Kaufman’s charges.) 
So the most absurd hazardous-waste incinerator on the surface of the planet (which is saying a lot) is up and burning away, and nothing seems able to stop it.
For more than a decade, the federal EPA has done virtually nothing to prevent the building of a hazardous-waste incinerator where no sane company would ever build one. It uttered not a peep when Waste Management, a corporation that had been convicted of gross environmental negligence, made a bid to buy the entire project. It did precisely nothing when the height of the smokestack was increased, and it tried to conceal evidence that the East Liverpool incinerator, like all incinerators, will have profound effects on the food chain. Although a rising chorus of protest from local activists persuaded the EPA to appoint one of its Washington-based administrators to act as a “people’s advocate,” the man visited East Liverpool only once, after which he accepted a vice presidency at Waste Management, Inc., where he joined a long line of EPA and other federal officials, including former Senator and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker.
What, one might ask, is going on here? Al Gore was definitely the environment’s man on the ticket. Although he may have sounded like an android, his programming seemed a heartening change from the “let ’em eat waste” philosophy of his predecessor. Twice, on the campaign trail and later in December, Gore expressed his outrage at the deplorable situation in East Liverpool, going so far as to promise that the incinerator would never operate until a new, thorough investigation had been completed. But despite Gore’s unambiguous pronouncements, the East Liverpool incinerator rolls on.
Newly appointed federal EPA head Carol Browner has excused herself from ruling on the matter on the grounds that her husband is connected with an environmental group that, like virtually every other such group, does not like what it sees in East Liverpool. However, the Browner EPA did, with much fanfare, announce a “moratorium” on the construction of new hazardous-waste incinerators. But while the nation’s press made small, glad cries of rejoicing, they managed to miss the point that the EPA’s guidance on incinerator permits is not binding in forty-six states (including Ohio), meaning that Browner’s moratorium applies to just four, plus Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas.
The official explanation for the administration’s powerlessness to stop the incinerator from operating is that the Bush administration, in one of its last acts, authorized the incinerator’s test burn, setting in motion an irreversible chain of events. Yes, the Bush administration really did that, but, for whatever it’s worth, Harry Truman somehow managed to fire General MacArthur, even if Bill Clinton can’t think of a way to shut down an incinerator.
Meanwhile, the elementary school, which has no powerful friends, hasn’t moved an inch, and the possibility of an accident has not diminished one bit. The following is a description of the school’s planned response to a toxic emergency:
“The emergency ‘plan’ calls for a strategy of ‘sheltering in place.’ An examination of the details of this plan reveals in the starkest fashion the underlying futility of truly protecting these small children. The plan assumes that all four hundred children can be herded safely and efficiently into the school cafeteria within three minutes, the room sealed by stuffing wax paper and tinfoil in the cracks and taping with duct tape, and the air conditioning, heating, and ventilating systems turned off so that outside air would not be entering the building. If an explosion were to shatter even one of the windows, sealing the room would be impossible. Even without a broken window, however, it is unlikely that toxic gases could be kept out of the room . . . making it more a tomb than a safe haven.”
The author of the above letter is David Ozonoff, M.D., MPH, professor of public health and chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University. It is addressed to William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States. The date of the letter is June 21, 1993.
Wax paper and tinfoil and duct tape.
L.J. Davis is a frequent contributor to Mother Jones. Our thanks to activist Terri Swearingen, whose help in locating documents was invaluable, and to reporter T.C. Brown, whose excellent articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer have gone sadly unnoticed in the national media.
1. A floodplain has a problem with certain acts of God, as our Midwestern neighbors recently discovered. In East Liverpool, a flood could wash away drums and vehicles transporting hazardous waste, resulting in a disastrous contamination of the Ohio River. Furthermore, the soil of a floodplain consists of soft and unstable silt. The incinerator’s permit may have been obscure on many important specifications, but it insisted that the foundations had to support a weight of three thousand pounds per square foot. Even after driving 1,700 pilings down to the bedrock, the incinerator’s foundation was unable to meet the load requirements. The Ohio EPA then decided that the requirement had perhaps been excessive, agreed to postpone its decision until a geological survey had been completed, and allowed construction to proceed–without knowing whether the plant would sink into the earth, tilt sideways, or fall over. I’m not making any of this up, by the way.
2. East Liverpool and its surrounding Rust Belt communities are located in an unusual microclimate, where toxic emissions can be trapped (and breathed) for hours or days; in 1948, the death of twenty people in a nearby community during a sustained period of atmospheric stagnation marked the beginning of modern air-pollution policies.
3. The trucks will travel six miles through East Liverpool on local roads, the last half mile on a poorly marked road through the industrial area. The boundaries between the road, shoulder, and industrial parking lots are unmarked, and in many places vehicles are parked very close to the roadway.
4. After many years and much waffling, the federal EPA finally added the port authority’s name to the permit. Almost immediately, the port authority, desperate to get its name off the permit, sold the land to the incinerator’s owners for $5 million and $937,236.26 in back rent.
5. The EPA investigation began July 21, 1992. The memo, also dated July 21, sets out a sixteen-step plan for the incinerator’s future, culminating in “WTI will be allowed to bring hazardous waste on-site (Feb. 1993).” After the memo was leaked, EPA Region 5 Director Valdus Adamkus alternately claimed that the memo had actually been written on August 21 and the date was a typo, and that it merely “outlined the events that might . . . transpire, with possible time frames.”
6. Despite the company’s claims that the test burn was a “worst case” scenario, test burns employ substances that are supposed to be “analogous” to, but are actually very different from, the messy, jumbled substances that an operational incinerator deals with as a matter of course. Unlike the day-to-day operation of the plant, a test burn is carefully planned and done under conditions that are unlikely ever to be duplicated during the controlled chaos of commercial incineration.
7. In the memo, Kaufman also asked that Reno’s principal deputy, Webster Hubbell, be “‘walled off’ from any decisionmaking” pertaining to his request. The reason? Kaufman claims that Hubbell and his former law firm, Rose, had represented Jackson Stephens when he put together the financing for the East Liverpool incinerator.
It is interesting to note that EPA Region 5 Director Adamkus, whose jurisdiction includes Waste Management’s grotesquely mismanaged Chicago incinerator as well as the one in East Liverpool, is the only EPA regional administrator from the Bush administration who was kept when the current government took office.
THE PRINCIPAL PLAYER
Stephens Inc., operating through a subsidiary named Waste Technologies, Inc. (WTI), was one of the original partners in Waste Technologies Industries (also abbreviated, confusingly and perhaps not coincidentally, WTI), which built the East Liverpool incinerator.
There has always been something incongruous about Stephens Inc. Despite the Little rock firm’s attempts to portray itself as a small- city operation that closes for the duck season and got fabulously lucky on a couple of down-home deals like Wal-Mart, it was, at the incinerator’s inception, the ninth-largest investment bank in the country. Since it is not headquartered in New York, its dealings are local news, little noticed by the national press, even when they have national implications. And, as a source close to the company once remarked, “The farther you get from Arkansas, the better it looks.”
Stephens Inc. was founded by Witt Stephens, a state legislator’s son who parlayed a Depression-era belt-buckle, Bible, and municipal-bond business into an immense personal fortune. After his retirement in 1973, the company was run by his shy younger brother, Jackson (a classmate of Jimmy Carter’s at the Naval Academy). Witt Stephens and Stephens Inc. did much to create the economic paradox that is modern Arkansas: a desperately poor state with a scant 2.3 million inhabitants that is nonetheless home to a number of wealthy companies. Without the financial assistance of the Stephens brothers, Sam Walton might have ended his days as the most innovative merchant in Bentonville. Stephens money was also important to the fortunes of enterprises as various as Tyson Foods and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the television producer and reigning First Friend. Stephens Inc. is an important client of the Rose law firm, whose chairman, C. Joseph Giroir, made Hillary Rodham Clinton a partner. And back in 1977, Stephens assisted BCCI’s infiltration of the American banking system by brokering the latter’s purchase of National Bank of Georgia stock held by Bert Lance, former President Jimmy Carter’s friend and disgraced budget director.
Jackson Stephens (who turned over the reins to his son, Warren, in the late eighties) and his firm were both substantial contributors to the campaigns of Presidents Reagan and Bush (to the tune of at least $100,000 in 1980 and 1989), but they have been closer still to Bill Clinton (whom Witt Stephens had been known to call “that boy”).
On two occasions, once when Clinton was running for reelection in Arkansas in 1990 and again in March 1992, when his battered presidential campaign was broke, the Stephens family saved Clinton’s bacon with an infusion of money. Indeed, it may not be too much to say that their Worthen Bank’s emergency $3.5 million line of credit saved the presidential campaign from extinction. –L.J.D.
There seems to be an unspoken rule that no company can get involved in the East Liverpool incinerator unless it possesses a tangled organizational structure, and Von Roll, the sole surviving partner in Waste Technologies Industries, is no exception. The corporate parent is Von Roll AG (or Ltd.) of Gerlafingen, Switzerland, and the American arm of the company is Von Roll America, Inc. Although its East Liverpool operations are officially under the control of Von Roll Ohio Inc., the actual work in East Liverpool was performed by Von Roll, Inc. Nor do the Chinese boxes end here. Von Roll also owns a subsidiary called New Jersey Steel, which, in turn, owns a third of AJ Ross Logistics, a company whose largest shareholder is a certain Thomas Petrizzo, a well-known and high-ranking member of New York City’s Colombo organized-crime family.
There is also the question of just what, exactly, Von Roll AG was exporting to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the eve of the Gulf War. Von Roll claims the shipments seized in Frankfurt and Bern were forging presses; the Swiss police and German armaments experts say that they could have been used as recoil mechanisms for Saddam’s uncompleted superguns.
CHEMICAL WASTE MANAGEMENT (CHEMWASTE), which contemplated buying the incinerator in 1987 and now provides it with most of its waste, is a subsidiary of WMX Technologies, Inc. (until recently called Waste Management, Inc.), the largest waste- processing company in the nation (annual revenues: $8.6 billion). Nationwide, WMX collects trash, owns the landfills in which it is deposited, and processes nuclear, medical, and chemical waste. It operates through a bewildering maze of subsidiaries and subsidiaries- within-subsidiaries, which eliminates its liability if something goes wrong–and plenty has. A complete list of WMX’s and ChemWaste’s sins- -and the millions of dollars in penalties they have paid as penance– would keep us here all day.
Most significant to East Liverpool residents is probably ChemWaste’s toxic-waste incinerator in Chicago, where employees repeatedly turned off air-pollution monitoring devices, burned pretty much anything they pleased, maintained deceptive paperwork, and poured toxins into the municipal sewer system. ChemWaste paid a $3.5 million penalty–then, and perhaps now, the largest administrative penalty imposed on a single facility in the history of the EPA–but it did not learn its lesson. In February 1991, a drum of tetrazole exploded in the incinerator’s rotary kiln, blew open three doors, and emitted a cloud of poisonous smoke. The drum had been “mischaracterized”
–meaning that the people running the incinerator had no idea that they had just thrown forty-four gallons of explosives into a two- thousand-degree oven. ChemWaste produced $2 million from its bottomless pockets and once again promised to clean up its act. — L.J.D.
THE OTHER VP
For most of the East Liverpool incinerator’s history, it has been unclear exactly who persuaded the EPA to turn a blind eye to the situation, but an example from the previous administration may serve as a blueprint for how influence works:
In May 1992, Von Roll President D.J. Blake Marshall wrote J. Danforth Quayle, the vice president of the United States and a man with a receptive ear–Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness (or, as some letterhead spelled it, “Competativeness”) had recently suggested that companies be allowed to deposit certain types of hazardous waste in municipal landfills. Von Roll, Marshall wrote, was “engaged in an intensely pitched battle . . . at the mercy of the regulatory process run amok. . . . $15 million over budget, technically in default to our bankers, and the future of our one hundred highly trained employees is uncertain.” He claimed that “the valid permits to construct we once had are now invalid,” although they were only undergoing a much- belated examination. Vice President Quayle did not hesitate.
A meeting was convened in Washington, bringing together Von Roll representatives with the associate director of Quayle’s council and delegates from the EPA, the White House domestic policy group, the Office of Management and Budget, and President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. It was later claimed that this remarkable assemblage specifically instructed the EPA to give Von Roll no special consideration, but on July 9, 1992, the EPA gave the incinerator permission to continue operation pending the results of the investigation. On July 24, they decided that the permit was valid after all.
The relevant presidential official was quick to deny any suggestion that the administration was influencing policy. “Our role,” said James A. Fitzhenry, the associate director of cabinet affairs, “has been simply to make EPA headquarters aware of the problems faced by the company.”
If Dan Quayle could accomplish so much in defiance of the law, think how much Al Gore could do to uphold it. –L.J.D.