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Report urges shutdown, tests for WTI incinerator

Sunday, October 22, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A preliminary federal report released yesterday says a controversial hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, should be shut down immediately and new tests conducted to determine if it can burn hazardous waste without endangering health.

The report, by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency national ombudsman Robert J. Martin, says the incinerator, located on the banks of the Ohio River 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, should be shut down for at least six months so that new emissions tests can be conducted and a risk assessment performed under federal oversight.

EPA has promised to decide within two weeks whether to follow the recommendations of its ombudsman.

Raymond Wayne, a spokesman for the plant, contended that Martin had released the preliminary document to the media before giving it to plant officials, and objected strongly to that.

The report itself says, however, that it was given to plant officials before anyone else.

And Wayne insisted that the incinerator is safe.

"Ours has been the most studied and inspected facility of its kind in American history. The EPA has conducted millions of dollars worth of studies of our facility, all of which have determined that our facility meets or exceeds both the spirit and the letter of the hazardous waste laws and regulations of this country," he said.

The Waste Technologies Inc. incinerator burns 60,000 tons of hazardous waste a year. Despite persistent and massive protests from the community, the plant was granted an operating permit in 1992, but since 1995 it has operated only on interim licenses.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the federal EPA have recorded more than 100 equipment and procedural violations at the plant, including 27 fires and two explosions. Last November, the Ohio EPA began an enforcement action against the company that included a civil penalty of $126,600 and in June, the U.S. EPA reclassified the facility as a "significant non-complier," a formal designation that requires the company to pay a penalty.

The 32-page ombudsman's report released yesterday details the results of an investigation begun in the spring at the request of WTI opponents. It details problems with the trial burn conducted in 1992. That test was key in the permit approval for the facility.

The report recommends retesting and a new trial burn in 2001 as a necessity for permit renewal by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

"My considered presumption is that it is neither protective of human health, of the environment nor of public safety to allow the WTI facility to continue unrestricted operations in the face of new information about insufficient and compromised [test] data," Martin wrote in his report.

According to Martin, the permit to operate the incinerator was based on test burn results that were compromised and whose reliability is questionable.

The test did not calculate lead in the emissions from the facility. Other test result samples were held for months before they were reviewed by a laboratory, compromising the results.

Also, the risk assessment done in 1997 did not take into account a worst-case scenario involving air inversions in the river valley where WTI operates. Inversions are weather conditions that trap industrial emissions in valley areas.

Vice President Al Gore, who became a figure in the incinerator controversy, said yesterday he supported the plant's closure for testing.

"The ombudsman preliminary report recommends that WTI should cease operation until new tests can be done and the vice president fully supports that recommendation," said Kathleen McGinty, senior policy advisor for Gore's presidential campaign at a Society for Environmental Journalists convention in East Lansing, Mich.

Gore told incinerator opponents while campaigning in nearby Weirton, W.Va., in 1992 that he would be on their side. But after his election to the office of vice president, he told them the incinerator's permit couldn't be revoked unless its burning violated health and safety standards, and two reviews had detected no violations.

Gore campaign officials said yesterday that the preliminary report was the culmination of Gore's work on this issue for eight years.

Alonzo Spencer, president of an incinerator protest group called Save Our County, said the report's conclusions are sound and should be followed.

"I always thought if people listened to the facts, we would prevail," Spencer said. "Martin conducted a full-scale investigation, and we would be surprised if this is not accepted."

But Spencer said incinerator opponents aren't celebrating yet.

"We learned not to get too excited if we win. We're playing this day-by-day but its not over," said Spencer, who has headed the protest group for 14 years. "But we do feel vindicated. The report says what we have been saying for years."

Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace toxics campaign, said the report marks the first time in the 20-year controversy over the incinerator that the federal government has confirmed the concerns of East Liverpool residents. Greenpeace has supported opponents of the WTI facility for the past decade.

"Although this is not a revocation of the permit, which we think is necessary, it does give the community some relief," Hind said. "It does put the Clinton-Gore administration to the test on whose side it's on -- either the children of East Liverpool or the Union Bank of Switzerland, the facility's principal owner." Hind said the vice president has "both access and influence" to prevail on the president to implement the ombudsman's recommendations.

The ombudsman will continue his investigation until he issues a final report April 1.

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