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Waste incinerator staying open

East Liverpool facililty, given poor bill of health

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One of the world's largest hazardous waste incinerators will continue to operate in East Liverpool, Ohio, despite a federal report released over the weekend that says it should be closed immediately because of public health and environmental concerns.

By not ordering the immediate shutdown of Waste Technologies Inc.'s 60,000-ton-a-year incinerator, located on the banks of the Ohio River 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ignoring both the primary recommendation in the report of its national ombudsman, Robert Martin, and Vice President Al Gore's endorsement of that action.

Gore's involvement in the incinerator controversy that has stretched over two decades was criticized by the facility's opponents.

Incinerator opponents say that by not ordering the EPA to follow its ombudsman's recommendation, Gore and the Clinton administration have failed to live up to a 1992 campaign promise to close the facility, which is 1,100 feet from an elementary school and 320 feet from the nearest residential neighborhood. Under current Ohio law, the incinerator would not be allowed to operate in that location.

"It's bizarre that the EPA would act in defiance of the administration position. Who's calling the shots here?" said Jennifer O'Donnell, a director of Ohio Citizen Action, a group that has opposed incinerator operation. "I'm shocked, given the 400 kids at that elementary school, that they would make that decision. What happened to the I-will-fight-for-you Al Gore?"

In response to the ombudsman's preliminary report, released Saturday, the EPA said it will follow recommendations to retest the Von Roll WTI incinerator emissions, do expanded air quality monitoring and amend the plant's 1995-1997 risk assessment to reflect new data from the monitors and retest. But it won't order an immediate shutdown.

"As EPA continues its expeditious review of the ombudsman's preliminary report, and as new information becomes available, EPA will take all steps to protect the public's health, including an order to cease operations if necessary," said Timothy Fields Jr., EPA assistant administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

Gore endorsed the report, and urged the EPA to "take swift action to fulfill the ombudsman's recommendations and provide the community with the protection it deserves."

Jim Kennedy, a Gore spokesman, said the ombudsman's report gives the EPA two weeks to decide whether to follow its recommendations.

"The EPA is reviewing its options and discussing its options with the Ohio environmental agency," Kennedy said. "The EPA has not ruled out having the incinerator stop operations and will discuss that option with the state."

But Martin's report states that the EPA has the authority and should revoke the WTI operating permit immediately because of irregularities in the emissions test and air sampling done during the 1992 trial burn, and in subsequent compliance testing required by the permit.

"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.

"EPA should, at a minimum and consistent with the EPA Policy on Trial Burns for inconclusive trial burns, cease feeding waste into the incinerator for a period of no less than six months and schedule a retest of the trial burn."

Fred Segg, Waste Technologies Inc. vice president and general manager, said a 1997 review by Martin found nothing wrong at the facility.

"The only difference between then and now is that Al Gore is running for president," said Segg, who criticized the ombudsman's report for containing inaccuracies, faulty analysis and false conclusions.

Incinerator opponents, who view Gore's recent efforts as little more than political posturing, have informed him by letter that they are planning to demonstrate in Washington, D.C., tomorrow.

"Every day that the incinerator operates is another day the risk goes up for the people of East Liverpool. The vice president must use his influence to shut the WTI incinerator down," said Greenpeace campaigner Rick Hind. "Allowing it to operate is like telling a [drunken] driver to stay on the road as long as he follows the speed limit."

Hind said soil sampling done on the elementary school playground showed levels of dioxin, a cancer-causing compound produced by combustion, six to nine times the national average. Lead and arsenic were also found at levels above the national average.

"The dioxin levels are equivalent to or greater than those found near a Columbus, Ohio, incinerator that the EPA has already shut down," Hind said.

The WTI incinerator was granted an operating permit by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, despite loud and persistent opposition from some residents and grassroots environmental groups. Since 1995, it has operated only on interim licenses, and its permit is up for renewal next year.

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.

An Ohio EPA enforcement action against the company last November included a civil penalty of $126,600 and in June, the EPA reclassified the facility as a "significant noncomplier," a formal designation that requires the company to pay a penalty.

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