U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Carol Browner on Tuesday announced what may turn out to be major changes in hazardous waste incinerator policy, including a sort of moratorium on new hazardous waste incinerators.
However, even as the new policies were being announced, one was put to the test and it failed. The incident raises a fundamental question about Carol Browner: can she gain control of this antediluvian dinosaur, this anti-environmental EPA? No one doubts Browner's good intentions, her keen intelligence, her personal environmental credentials and convictions, or her sound character. By every measure, she seems a genuinely good person. But can she discipline the EPA staff to adopt pro-environment policies after a decade spent lumbering off in a different direction? Can this ponderous 7000-member adjunct-to-industry behemoth be tugged and shoved in a new direction by a smart young person wielding only the title "Administrator" and a sharp pencil?
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Terri Swearingen, 36, a nurse fighting the WTI incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, heard about Browner's new policies from a reporter 24 hours before they were announced, moments after she was released from jail Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. Swearingen had been confined in D.C. jail briefly for handcuffing herself, along with 53 other citizens, to a mock incinerator parked across the street from the White House. The citizens handcuffed themselves to each other, then to a bright yellow 24-foot Greenpeace truck, affectionately known as "Big Bird." For the occasion, Big Bird was sporting a 16-foot black smokestack which belched non-toxic white clouds throughout the "action." The sides of the incinerator-truck bore huge signs: "Clinton and Gore: Keep Your Word, Shut Down the Incinerator." Police could not remove the truck from its embarrassing location on Pennsylvania Avenue because Beth Knapp, 26, from East Liverpool, and Greenpeace campaigner Steve Kretzmann, 29, were lying beneath it, handcuffed around its axles. Swearingen and Beth Stenger, 30, from East Liverpool had their right arms thrust through holes in the side of the truck, handcuffed into pipes embedded within steel-reinforced concrete blocks inside the truck. Their left arms were handcuffed to a human chain of handcuffed citizens like Billie Elmore, 64, from North Carolina and Sue Lieber, 35, from Arizona, chanting "Al Gore, Read Your Book" and "For Our Children, We Won't Move." The chain of citizens was dispatched to jail after about an hour, but it took fire crews nearly 5 hours to cut Swearingen and the others loose from the truck, jackhammering the concrete blocks into dust to expose their handcuffs.
Police had to close the busy westbound lane of Pennsylvania Avenue the better part of Monday. The media had a field day, and the White House sent over a clerk to record how many people, from which states, had handcuffed themselves to the truck.
Clearly the grass-roots movement for environmental justice has got the President's attention. The NEW YORK TIMES announced EPA's new waste policies on its front page this way Tuesday morning: "Reacting to protests about the burning of toxic chemical wastes in Ohio, Arkansas, and a dozen other states, the Clinton Administration plans to bar the development of new hazardous waste incinerators for 18 months."
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A moratorium on new incinerators! This was real news. I received a last-minute invitation to EPA headquarters mid-day Tuesday to hear Carol Browner explain her new policies to an assembled group of incinerator operators. To my surprise, Carol Browner was nowhere in sight. Instead, the meeting was conducted by old-time EPA hacks Sylvia Lowrance and Richard Guimond. I was dumbstruck. These two individuals were personally responsible for many of the Reagan/Bush policies and programs that beyond-the-beltway environmentalists have found most loathsome and contemptible. (See RHWN #318 and #325.) It was as if I had been summoned to a briefing at the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to hear about strict new junk-bond policies only to find Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken running the meeting. To the assembled incinerator operators, Lowrance and Guimond spoke with great earnestness about EPA's new incinerator policies and how they would fully protect public health and the environment. But these two, and hundreds more like them, have spent the last decade mouthing similar-sounding platitudes, which turned out to be disingenuous pap, defending EPA's previous policies which, they have always insisted with equal earnestness, were fully protective of human health and the environment. It has gotten so bad that people in East Liverpool have a standing joke about all EPA staff: "I know you're lyin' 'cause your lips are movin'." So what is going on? Can Carol Browner wrest control of this agency from these hacks who for a decade have religiously committed EPA to the benign neglect of environmental problems, or worse?
Events at EPA on Tuesday provided no reassurance. Even as Browner's new policies were being announced, one was put to the test and it flunked embarrassingly. In a printed statement Browner said she was taking five actions to "immediately strengthen our program for the regulation of incinerators and industrial furnaces that burn hazardous waste." One immediate action was to "improve public participation." "Public participation is one of the major cornerstones of EPA's environmental programs. EPA is committed to meaningful public involvement in its permitting programs," Browner's documents said.
Outside the EPA auditorium where the new policies were being announced, Terri Swearingen, just 24 hours out of the hoosegow, arrives accompanied by Joe Thornton, mild-mannered co-author of Greenpeace's technical study of incineration, PLAYING WITH FIRE. They sign in, peaceably and openly, to hear Browner announce her new policies. Uniformed guards, on orders from higher-ups, throw them out and bar the door. So much for participation by the interested public. Does Ms. Browner have control of her agency? Did she herself order the door barred or was her worthy new "public participation" program sandbagged unbeknownst to her by bureaucrats of the Lowrance/Guimond ilk, grotesque remnants of an era when the agency was fully committed to secrecy and deception in the service of polluters?
What of the new moratorium? Officially, it goes this way: Currently there are 184 hazardous waste incinerators and 171 BIFs (boilers and industrial furnaces, including cement kilns) burning 5 million tons of hazardous wastes each year. Fifteen incinerators and 171 of the BIFs have "interim" but not "final" permits.
The moratorium means that these 186 existing burners without final permits will receive priority attention--they will be subjected to new risk assessments to examine their effects on the food chain and human health, and if the numbers turn out badly, permit restrictions will be tightened and some might even lose their permits. While this is going on, no "new" incinerators will be licensed unless a "new" incinerator is better than an old one it is intended to replace. That is the announced plan.
Unfortunately, there are numerous large loopholes.
** No "remedial" incinerators will be affected. No Superfund cleanup incinerators and no "soil burners" are subject to this moratorium. For them, it's business as usual, and many of them are among the dirtiest burners in America.
** EPA actually has authority to stop new incinerator permits in only 4 states (Wyoming, Iowa, Alaska and Hawaii) and in four other U.S.-controlled territories (Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa). In the remaining 46 states, the states themselves have been given authority to issue RCRA incinerator permits and Carol Browner has no permit-stopping authority in those 46.
** Even in the four states where Carol Browner HAS authority, Lowrance and Guimond told Tuesday's meeting, new incinerators that are "close" to having final permits will get a green light despite the so-called moratorium. (What "close" means will be decided on a case-by-case basis--which gives the Lowrance/Guimond axis full discretion.)
Discretion is everything, as shown by the WTI incinerator which failed its official "test burn" but was given a year-long operating permit by Ohio officials anyway. Lowrance told me WTI is a "fully permitted" facility, not subject to the moratorium. Guimond told me it had been "fully permitted" in 1985 (4 years before construction began) and will not be re-examined until 1995, when its permit comes up for renewal.
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At a meeting May 6th in his office in Chicago, EPA region 5 Administrator Valdus Adamkus told a group of citizens that, "Personally, in my heart, when I saw the location [of the WTI incinerator], I was shocked." He said he personally believed the elementary school, 1100 feet from the WTI smoke stack, should be bought out and moved by the incinerator owner, Swiss steel maker Von Roll. It was a devastating admission from a civil servant whose actions over the past 5 years have shown him to be fully committed to the Lowrance/Guimond religion of industrial promotion at any cost.
What about the homes where children live even less than 1100 feet from the stack? Should they be moved too? Should the whole town be moved to make the area safe for a dangerous incinerator? Mr. Adamkus had no answers for these questions when Terri Swearingen posed them, stabbing her finger in the air. But his damaging admission--that WTI is too dangerous to be sited where it is--is on the public record. How long can the President ignore this?
The vaunted incinerator moratorium made headlines, but the
substance is small. Other, more important, announcements
accompanied that one but got little press. EPA issued a "draft
strategy for combustion of hazardous waste" that promises a
completely fresh look at "how best to integrate source reduction
and waste combustion." It's a worthy goal, and my hat is off to
Carol Browner for putting it out. But events have convinced me
that until some major house cleaning takes place, EPA is still
not in shape to protect much besides polluters.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: incineration; carol browner; epa; policy; hazardous waste; public participation; terri swearingen; east liverpool, oh; civil disobedience; greenpeace; bill clinton; al gore; beth knapp; steve kretzmann; beth stenger; billie elmore; sue lieber; sylvia lowrance; richard guimond; joe thornton; moratorium; superfund; coil burners; soil burning; valdus adamkus; von roll; draft strategy for combustion of hazardous waste;