The Battle of the Burner -1990-1994

The Battle Against the Burner, 1990-1992: Getting Organized and Discovering the Government Is Not for “All the People” (1)

In August, 1990 a subsidiary of Union Pacific- -United States Pollution Control, Inc. of Pennsylvania–announced plans to site a hazardous waste incinerator across the highway from the Lycoming County landfill. If licensed, the company planned to spend $100 million on construction costs and incinerate at least 75,000 tons, and perhaps up to 175,000 tons, of waste annually. The battle against the burner had importance beyond its imposition on the rights and safety of valley citizens. In the 1980s, Greenpeace had launched a national campaign against incineration, and its film, “Rush to Burn,” importantly influenced OUE members in the first months of the battle. Greenpeace’s argument rested on the following, persuasive, propositions: that incineration technology was crude and untested (2); that the health consequences of incinerating hazardous wastes were unknown; that allowing big incinerators to be built would encourage industries that generated the wastes to continue to do so; that if “the people” lost this battle against commercial incineration of hazardous wastes it would open the door wider to large scale, off site incineration throughout the country.

Further, by 1990, production methods generating large-scale hazardous wastes were often unnecessary for a competitive cost structure. There was also much evidence that carefully monitored onset waste disposal could be a safer and healthier alternative to off site incineration.(3) A final matter demanding attention was that in states with incinerator licensing procedures like Pennsylvania’s, the loss of democratic rights was a dirty by-product of the spread of incinerator technology, a consequence as threatening as the hazardous wastes themselves. In truth, this struggle in the valley had all the marks of high drama, and dramatic it was. And, who were the principal players?

The Company: Union Pacific and its subsidiary, USPCI

USPCI, Inc. of Pennsylvania was part of a waste treatment company in Houston, Texas that was founded in the 1960s and bought by Union Pacific in 1988. Union Pacific’s CEO was until 1997 Drew Lewis, former head of the Transportation Department in the Reagan Administration, and an old political ally of former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General, Richard Thornburg. In 1990 USPCI purchased a company called Environmental Management Services (EMS), hired some of its officers, and essentially transformed EMS into a new entity, USPCI of Pennsylvania (hereafter, USPCI). However, in August, 1990, when USPCI’s plans to build its incinerator became public, EMS, with tacit approval by the DER, decided not to divulge names of its original investors. This outraged the opposition against both company and agency because it was already known that some original EMS partners were ex-state officials and that two others were sons of Drew Lewis, Andrew and Russell.

Public anger had already been aroused by suspicions about the methods the company had used to purchase options to buy the land necessary for its incinerator. As reported in OUE’s newsletter, and never denied by USPCI: . . .In 1988 [Anthony] Donatoni [president of USPCI, Pa.] tried to buy the land for EMS. Once the property owners found that the proposed company was into the waste business, the deal fell through. Mr. Donatoni, realizing that his truthful approach failed, hired Walter Norely to buy the property under the name of a different company [Pennswood Development]. . .Norely then told the land owners their property would be used for light industry with no smoke stacks. (4)Evidence that the land had been purchased under false pretenses emerged from various sources, one of them the personal notes of an economic planner in Union County, who had attended various meetings in the late 1980s with local, state, and national politicians, and with some of the businessmen who later would try to seek a permit for the incinerator. These notes helped to confirm the local judgment that the Valley was facing an incinerator scheme that had been developed secretly and had been many years in the making. Thus, the landowners, principally farmers, claimed they had been duped when the plan became public and unpopular. They nonetheless licked their wounds in comfort: one family received $2.027 million for 272 key acres, another $1.23 million for 154 acres, and one lucky farmer received $47,500 for .86 acre. (5)

Throughout 1991, OUE made disclosure of the EMS partners central to its publicity war against USPCI on grounds the company’s potential for complying with state laws depended in part on the character and reputation of its officials. After a year of OUE pressure, in December, 1991, the DER forced EMS to make public the names, now down to eleven partners because two had disposed of EMS stock before it was purchased by USPCI. These DER revelations confirmed public suspicions when the “eleven” turned out to include the two Lewis brothers, and the following unusually well placed group of corporate and government officials. Their names and positions are given some detail because of how prominent they were in state government and how ideally located they were to push forward the incinerator scheme. Nicholas Debenidictis, who was actually Governor Thornburg’s DER secretary as late as 1986, and had been a staff member of the EPA. Anthony Donatoni, the president of USPCI, worked for the EPA from 1972-84, and, according to USPCI documents “was responsible for guiding the developing of state hazardous waste programs for six states,” including Pennsylvania. From 1984-87, he was Director of Policy for DER, where his “responsibilities included policy and regulatory development for the Commonwealth’s municipal and hazardous waste programs.” (6) Ernest Kline, former Democratic state senator, state lieutenant governor from 1971-79, candidate for governor in 1978, and USPCI lobbyist. Donald Mazziotti, the owner of Delta Development Group, for which Donatoni once worked, and which was the consulting firm hired by USPCI to develop the industrial park at the incinerator site. Mazziotti was also the first Commerce Secretary of ex-Governor William Casey. James Pickard, another ex-Commerce Secretary from 1983-86, ex-Republican candidate for governor, advisor to Pennswood Development, and potential developer of the industrial park with Mazziotti. Pickard was also a public backer of Arlen Specter’s 1992 bid to remain in the U.S. Senate.Other details in the application fueled the fire by revealing that the ex-EMS partners were to share $182,000 when USPCI acquired the land for the project, another $500,000 if the project was licensed by the DER. In addition, USPCI budgeted at least $7.5 million for the approval process, and if it spent less in doing so the partners would share the difference as a bonus. Sweetest of all, once the incinerator was operating the “Allenwood Eleven,” as they became known, would receive 5 percent of the gross revenue from those operations. In early 1992 prices this would have amounted to about $7.5 million per year for the partners for each of the estimated 30 years in the life of the incinerator. (7)

DER’s information about the partners did not surprise OUE leaders, who already knew most of the information. Indeed, its newsletter had already awarded Donatoni its “1990 Corporate Arrogance Award,” a scroll with a huge dollar sign and a pig standing in the middle of it. The gaping chasm between company and community had begun to form in August, 1990, when Drew Lewis took the microphone at USPCI’s first public information meeting. Lewis made it emphatically clear to the 1,400 OUE members there that regardless of local sentiments, if USPCI were licensed to build the incinerator it would do so. The Lewis family reputation was further tarnished by a press story quoting Andrew Lewis, who shared with his brother almost half the preferred stock of EMS, as saying that it “was purely chance that a subsidiary of [my father’s] company bought [our] company. . It was strictly coincidence. . . .Dad had no role. If anything, he discouraged it.’” (8)

Thus, USPCI was perceived from the beginning as an arrogant, insensitive, duplicitous, and greedy company. It did not reduce antipathy to the company when Donatoni swore that the ex-state officials, himself included, had no connections with EMS while they were still in office. OUE claimed that public documents clearly showed that Donatoni was still in the DER when he began to put together EMS. In fact, despite Donatoni’s denials, revelations that ex-high officials in state government–even an ex-head of the DER itself–were involved in EMS, then USPCI, led the public increasingly to doubt that the DER could remain neutral during the application process. These doubts about the DER would soon become outright hostility to the agency as it came to be seen as great a threat to the Valley as the company. All these doubts and suspicions made it easy for OUE to organize the local community, as we shall now see.

The Opposition: The Newly Re-Incarnated Organizations United for the Environment

The middle Susquehanna Valley has a largely white (about one tenth as many blacks per whites as the national average), politically conservative, mostly working class/farming population, where Republicans outnumber Democrats in some area counties by as much as two to one. The Union County planning director described the area’s people this way: Make no mistake, we were selected [for this incinerator site] not because of the site conditions, but rather because of the people conditions. We are rural, religious, polite, law abiding, conservative and non controversial people for the most part. We do not have the financial or personal resources available to us. They expected minimal organized opposition; they expected that they had the deal locked up in Harrisburg; they expected to come in and blow us away with their experts and their Armani suits. (9)Once news of the incinerator plan leaked out, quickly OUE sprung into action. It changed its name to “Organizations United for the Environment,” and created a task force, “Ban the Burner” specifically to fight the incinerator. Soon OUE was growing so fast its principal problem was keeping on track the efforts of the newly enlisted volunteers in OUE chapters in surrounding communities. Greenpeace, along with other groups in the state and elsewhere experienced in fighting incinerator proposals, convinced OUE that to prevail it would have to enlist at least 10,000 people and get their commitment to a long and grueling battle. The OUE leaders themselves were convinced that mass citizen participation, whether fighting in the courts, or elsewhere, was absolutely essential.

The OUE leadership, its “Administrative Board,” was, and is, comprised of about a dozen citizens from towns and villages within five to ten miles of the incinerator site. Soon after reactivating, OUE was publishing its free newsletter, Environmental Advisor, and was working to encourage and shape the activities of OUE chapters in the neighboring towns. Within six months OUE had 12,000 members; within a year, it had more than 17,000, with the more active members living closest to the site. In its January 1991 newsletter, OUE’s membership list included Volunteer Fire Companies, churches, Chambers of Commerce and other business service groups, peace activists, Audubon Societies, student councils, farmer’s associations, a few banks, and almost all the area’s township and borough councils. Union County’s commissioners were developing strategies complementary in every way to those of OUE. A renegade EPA official bolstered the OUE cause by offering his time, his expertise, and the emphatic message gradually accepted by everyone that if OUE didn’t fight company and government tooth and nail it would lose the battle, completely and ingloriously.

As is often true in environmental struggles, the earliest arguments against the incinerator were related to health and safety. Greenpeace, and the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Toxic Waste, both provided support in the form of literature, advice, and moral support. In November, 1990, the Union County medical profession added its supporting voice by publishing the following press release: The Union County Medical Society (UCMS) expresses grave concern over the possible effects on the health of the public from the emissions of an incinerator burning hazardous waste products, as well as the importation and accumulation of such products. The UCMS, with the Pennsylvania Medical Society and American Medical Association, “plans to investigate thoroughly these concerns and will communicate to the public its findings.” (10)Two months after publishing this statement, local doctors succeeded in getting the Pennsylvania State Medical Society to withhold its support for the incinerator until it had satisfactory answers to a host of questions about incinerator technology.

Because virtually everyone was convinced the incinerator was a nightmare-in-the-making, OUE could rapidly expand its organization by sponsoring, or participating in, highly publicized and well attended meetings at a public school close to the proposed site. At these meetings early in the battle (some of them actually mandated informational meetings of the DER or USPCI), the crowds always exceeded a thousand people. They were loud, often rowdy, and worked collectively to intimidate USPCI and DER officials. The audience would rattle bell ringers, shake wooden hatchets (after the hatchet job being done by DER), and many of them wore gas masks. At OUE rallies “pallbearers” would carry in a wooden casket symbolizing “the death of the valley.” The EPA renegade enlivened the meetings when they were attended by company or state officials by subjecting them to a merciless grilling, made effective by virtue of his bullying style and, especially, by the fact he knew much more about the economics and technology of incineration than any of these officials.

At times, the crowd’s response to USPCI and/or DER officials seemed close to mayhem. Certainly it must have seemed so to the officials, some of who claimed that OUE members coming in and out of meetings had jostled them. At one DER hearing, an OUE member came to the front of a packed and excited auditorium and flaunted a sign at USPCI officials which read “The Second Amendment/ The Right to Bear Arms.” His defiance provoked the entire audience to rise to its feet with cheers.

OUE’s fund raising activities ranged from dances (square and ballroom) to pig roasts, from auctions to quilt making and band concerts. Demonstrations were frequently organized, at such places as DER’s offices in Harrisburg, at Union Pacific’s offices in Bethlehem, and wherever USPCI officials appeared in public. One annual event encouraged people, for $1 per shot, to fire shotguns at a wooden mock-up of the incinerator. Alongside these activities, OUE’s research and information campaign was able, when public hearings demanded it, to produce an endless line of OUE members testifying eloquently and persuasively about every aspect of the incinerator issue.

OUE members also dominated a twenty person, “Host Community Working Committee” (HCWC). The Committee’s members, as mandated by DER guidelines, were selected by USPCI with help from local officials. This group was supposed to be funded by a $100,000 USPCI grant in order to gather its own data on the various stages of the licensing process. Within weeks after it had been convened, the HCWC declared its independence because the company refused to meet its demands for at least $177,000 to finance its work and for complete autonomy in hiring its consultants. Without funding and operating almost totally on funds donated by OUE, the HCWC nonetheless played the primary role in providing a systematic, informed challenge to USPCI’s application and its public utterings. Indeed, it scored a major publicity victory when one of its paid consultants discovered and publicized substantial differences between the actual compliance history of USPCI and its subsidiaries, and the history the company had reported in its application. This investigator also discovered that an incinerator owned by a USPCI subsidiary in Philadelphia had exploded and blew a hole in the roof, injuring some of its workers. She also prepared an extensive report, published by the HCWC, challenging the data on which DER based its contention that the state actually needed commercial hazardous waste incinerators. (11)

In sum, then, the burner battle transformed OUE into the rarest of birds: a grass roots organization whose membership cuts across all the lines that ordinarily separate Americans politically. It included employers and their workers, union and non-union members, doctors and their patients, pastors and their parishioners, teachers and their students, professionals and their staffs, city folks and their rural neighbors, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, liberals and conservatives, organizations of every stripe. In short, OUE members and sympathizers represented most everyone in the Valley.

The State: The Department of Environmental Resources in Harrisburg

In the early 1990s, Pennsylvania generated about 750,000 tons annually of hazardous waste–less than 5% of which came from the central Susquehanna Valley–and exported parts of it to 25 other states. (12) In recent years, along with other waste exporting states, it came under growing EPA pressure to take care of its own hazardous wastes, or to risk losing Superfund money. In 1986, the DER published a study indicating the state needed additional incinerator capacity to burn up to 70,000 tons of hazardous wastes. Then, in 1988, state legislation gave the DER until 1992 to license commercial hazardous waste incinerators, or to forfeit to another agency the power to license them. Believing it had no alternative to siting commercial hazardous waste incinerators in Pennsylvania, and presumably convinced the technology was not a threat to health and safety, the DER sought applications from private corporations for such projects.

On paper, the procedures stipulated in the legislation provided amply for citizen input, though the decision to license a company resided ultimately with the secretary of the DER (appointed by the governor). Citizen views would come from public DER and company hearings, and from the HCWC, during a two phase certifying process. Phase One concerned primarily the physical characteristics of the site chosen by the applicant company (whether, for example, the incinerator would be too close to certain kinds of waters or wetlands, or would stand atop limestone deposits or prime agricultural soil.) Phase One also took into account how the company and its subsidiaries had complied with health and safety regulations in the past.

Once DER formally accepted USPCI’s application, OUE joined with local governments to challenge it in every way possible: it hired lawyers to bring suits in court and hired its own consultants to counter the company’s. For example, Gregg Township, where the incinerator was to be built, sued, claiming USPCI’s plan would violate local land use ordinances. Union County, in which Gregg Township is located, brought suit against the EPA, contesting its right to empower the DER to regulate hazardous waste incinerators in the state. Union County’s planning commission, which denied USPCI a zoning permit, sued the company, alleging it had violated an agreement to allow County officials to study the proposed site. For its part, in addition to ongoing organizing activities, OUE formally requested the U.S. Justice Department to investigate possible criminal violations of securities and conflict of interest laws by USPCI officials.

Statehouse politicians representing the area also joined the legal and political maneuvering. Within weeks all but one or two of them publically opposed the incinerator, and within months all but one of the elected officials representing the area were associated with OUE. The exception was Senator Arlen Specter, whose plans to “study the issue,” along with his connection to EMS partner, Pickard, had increasingly brought OUE comment and criticism. Elected state officials introduced a variety of bills to keep USPCI from the area, including legislation that would prohibit hazardous waste incinerators close to prisons, since the nation’s largest federal prison was being built across the highway from the proposed incinerator site on part of the original 8,500 acres seized by the government in 1942. The area’s Congressperson brought pressure on the EPA and the DER to pay more attention to the voices of the region’s citizens.

This battle over Phase One resulted in a temporary victory for OUE when, in August, 1991, the DER rejected USPCI’s application because part of its incinerator complex would be sited on twenty acres of “Class 1 Agricultural soils,” forbidden territory for a hazardous incinerator. The victory was short-lived: within weeks USPCI filed a new application based on a plan avoiding use of the banned twenty acres. The new application eliminated plans for an on site ash dump and the potential problems of leaching from that dump. By doing so, however, it added the new potential danger of spills from the highly toxic ash wastes that would then be shipped elsewhere for storage. For many, the transportation of hazardous wastes had been the greatest potential danger of the incineration scheme. In its Information Packet, USPCI tried to allay these fears by suggesting the inflow of wastes would represent “no more than fifteen to twenty” truckloads of untreated waste per day. (13) Of course, that many daily loads amounted to between 5,475 to 7,300 truckloads per year of untreated hazardous wastes to be added to the traffic on Route 15, a road that connected the site to Route I-80 and was renowned for its high accident rate. Moreover, these figures did not include the outflow of toxic ash which, under the new plan, would be taken in a yet undetermined number of trucks to an ash dump at a yet unspecified site.

USPCI’s new application renewed the fight, and the response in OUE’s next newsletter was, “THEY’RE B…A…C…K! Just like a scene from the horror movie ‘Poltergeist,’ USPCI is once again menacing the Susquehanna Valley with a hazardous waste proposal.” More substantively, OUE strongly urged members to testify at the January 1992 open meeting DER sponsored to solicit the public’s response to the new Phase One application. These public hearing/rallies became the cohering glue for OUE and always breathed new energy into an organization whose leadership has been under a constant strain for almost two years, and most of whose members were largely inactive. As it turned out, OUE was so successful in bringing testifiers to the DER hearing, it took a full day, with people testifying in two separate rooms, for DER officials to record all the comments.

Of the 169 citizens testifying, all but one, with varying degrees of eloquence, anger, resentment, information, and analysis, spoke against giving the company a permit. (14) A landowner that had sold land to USPCI said that, “The County Planning Director told me I would be a hero. He didn’t tell me I would be a heel.” A minister said that, “Because of the threat of the incinerator, marriages are on the brink of despair and civic duties in other areas have been left behind because of the time spent on this concern.” An officer of the BOP said in part that, “It is not in the best interests of the Bureau of Prisons. . .to locate a hazardous waste incineration facility adjacent to the [federal] prison across the highway.” And, officers of the three other large employers in the area, a supermarket chain, a food processor, and a university, all said the presence of an incinerator would spoil the environment for their respective enterprises.

Soon after the hearing, and as the DER deliberated, the head of the “Ban the Burner” campaign published a letter in the local press that well summarized OUE’s position: Dear [DER]:

Citizens of the central Susquehanna valley have had a stressful eighteen months. At no time in our collective lives have our properties, homes, and families been in such peril. USPCI came into the valley in 1989, acquired land through deceit, attempted to circumvent local zoning, repeatedly used lies and intimidation, ignored the obvious risk to inmates and staff at the Federal Correctional Complex under construction directly across route 15, engaged in illegal lobbying activities, and continues to exhaust the people of the region financially and emotionally.

USPCI thumbs its nose, not only at the people of the region, but at [the DER] as well. Their permit application is riddled with omissions as was pointed out at the hearing on January 15th. . .

OUE’s 17,000 members are confident you’ll turn down the permit application. It would appear you have little choice given their unwillingness to include all their compliance history as required by law. We’re concerned, however, that you deny if for the right reason; not only because they didn’t include all their compliance history, but because unreported compliance history uncovered by the Host Community Working Committee demonstrates this company has neither the intent nor the ability to comply with environmental regulations.

This is not the kind of company we want as a neighbor! Abort the process now so those citizens may once again return to a lifestyle unfettered by fear. (15)

As it turned out, the DER was moved neither by this eloquent letter, by the 168 testimonials against the permit, by the fact of 17,000 members of OUE, nor any of their activities during the previous eighteen stressful months. On March 12, 1992, the DER approved the Phase One part of USPCI’s application, and thus began a (roughly) two year Phase Two process. The DER also disregarded the company’s spotty safety record, and its dishonest reporting of it. It ignored the proximity of the prison on grounds that during Phase One the State Senate had rejected legislation making it illegal to build such an incinerator so close to a prison, and because proximity issues were explicitly a Phase Two consideration. Needless to say, the County appealed DER’s ruling, and a stream of other legal and political efforts began to flow in preparation for the Phase Two battle.

The DER’s decision to permit the company surprised some in the area, but not others. Those who believed that the current DER administration was “in the company’s pocket” had always assumed that USPCI would have to be stopped in court, or in some other way. For those who believed the company’s compliance history, or the proximity of the site to a huge federal prison complex, were grounds for denial, the decision was grimly surprising. For both groups, the future now promised a continuing, expensive battle against a mammoth company with the unlimited resources necessary to have its way, irrespective of the community’s wishes. For OUE, ever more it saw the battle in stark terms, or as OUE’s newsletter put it: “Do we allow a bunch of well financed thugs to destroy our valley? Or do we take control of our own destinies and soundly defeat them”?

The Burner Battle, Part Two, 1992-94: Victory!

The first two years of the burner battle generated depressing news about democratic rights: a united local community, engaging for almost two years in vigorous and often imaginative political work, still had a gun at its head, held there by a few rich men who wanted to get richer. USPCI, backed by Union Pacific’s $12.5 billion in assets, had at least $7.5 million set aside for the licensing process alone. On the other side, Union County had already spent about $350,000, was bankrupting itself, and still needed another $500,000 for Phase Two. OUE spent $135,000 in its first year, and needed $200,000 for the second year, somehow to be raised from a community whose pockets were being picked by the economic recession. In fact, if OUE and the County did raise the funds they needed, they still would be spending less than $1 million for the entire application process, or less than one seventh of the funds USPCI merely started with. (16)

At this point it seemed to OUE that all that it could do had been done. The membership drives had succeeded and the funds had been raised; the newsletter had educated the public; hired and in-house experts had published the research reports; law suits had been filed against the actions of USPCI and the DER. Virtually everyone and every organization had registered their opposition. Yet the burner permit remained alive, still backed by a huge company with a hard-nosed chief officer who often had made it public he wouldn’t back down. What else could OUE do?

The answer was a continuation of all that had gone before, plus a growing intensity to public demonstrations and a broadening scope of issues addressed at these demonstrations. OUE’s capacity for imagination and intensity had already been shown at many of its public activities during its first two years. For instance, several dozen OUE members had pulled a toilet seat around the governor’s mansion all one night to symbolize how inviting the state was to the importation of wastes. And, shortly after DER approved USPCI’s Phase One application, OUE members shouted down DER officials at two meetings where, on the basis of data all knew were outdated, the officials tried to defend the need for incineration capacity in the state. In the second of these meetings, OUE members, dressed as Indians, whooped, danced, swung hatchets, and tossed tea bags at stony silent DER officials.

Early demonstrations were inspiring models for what would come in 1993 and 1994. In early 1993, and after months of planning, 150 OUE protesters gathered outside the DER offices in Harrisburg. After a press conference in the rotunda of the capitol building, 13 OUE members marched the two blocks to the DER building and were arrested for sitting down and blocking the front doors, symbolically “closing down the agency.” Later, a benefit dance raised $5,000, to be used to pay the $3,000 in total fines that had been imposed on the members who had been arrested.

OUE’s biggest single fundraisers, aside from its newsletter solicitations, were its annual “Miss USPCI Male Beauty Pageants” where male OUE members would dress, often in drag, to represent the various characters in the battle. (Drew Lewis was once embodied as a maggot, for example). Live music and food would also adorn these Pageants and typically they would raise $10,000, or more. Like the public meetings, the Pageants brought everybody together to enjoy themselves and, most crucially, to reaffirm to each other their willingness never to give in to the company.

In 1993, OUE members also went directly to the principal source of their problems, the stately country home of Drew Lewis, north of Philadelphia. There, nine cars of members several times circled the Lewis compound, then distributed thousands of flyers in neighboring towns with a picture of Lewis at a Union Pacific Board meeting. Over Lewis’s picture was a title that said, “Beware of this Man,” and beneath it were carefully researched notes about who he was and how he was using his powerful business and political partners to try to make his cronies and sons richer than they already were. Later that year, a few members also traveled to visit Drew Lewis’s son, Andrew, who also lived in stately conditions outside Philadelphia, and circulated thousands of flyers describing in detail how much he would profit personally from the incinerator his dad’s company wanted to build.

And, in the summer of 1993, and again in the summer of 1994, OUE held large demonstrations alongside, and on, USPCI’s land abutting Route 15, the major north/south highway in the area. Both of these brought attention to the fact that environmental justice was part of the burner issue, since the huge federal prison complex being constructed across from the incinerator site housed over 3,000 inmates, disproportionally black or Hispanic speaking. BOP officials admitted it would take at least three days to evacuate the prison in case of an accident at the incinerator. At the first of these demonstrations, over 100 OUE members trespassed on USPCI’s site by building a mock cemetery on it with gravestones representing all the towns and cities in the nearby area. USPCI officials decided against asking the police to arrest these trespassers for reasons that lie buried in someone’s files, or memory. At these demonstrations, OUE focused attention on the waste industry’s obvious tendency to locate facilities in poor and/or minority, or in seemingly apolitical rural neighborhoods. With the demonstrations, OUE set the stage for additional lawsuits to be brought against the BOP, in case all else failed. They also identified ex-Governor Richard Thornburg, the old political crony of the mostly Republican ex-officials who had owned EMS, as a major barrier to exerting pressure on the BOP, because he was at the time the U.S. Attorney General. This meant the head of the BOP answered directly to an old pal of the Lewis boys, their dad, and the other partners.

By 1993 OUE members had gained enough experience to produce their own in-depth research. One member publicized a detailed breakdown of the probable costs and benefits of the incinerator showing its principal beneficiaries of to be the tight little band of favored investors in the project, along with the companies that generated hazardous wastes that needed treatment. The alleged benefits to local communities were $15 million of new income and 195 new jobs during the construction, along with about $2 million annual income and 150 jobs over the 30 years the incinerator was supposed to operate. Added to these were up to $75,000 per year of funds to the host township. These benefits to local people were absurdly small when weighed against the prodigious potential costs to their health and safety from having hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous wastes annually hauled about the area, and incinerated by a technology that often produced toxic explosions and whose normal operations emitted exceedingly dangerous toxins from its smokestacks. The benefits did not begin to offset the expected loss in the value in homes and businesses (especially farms) near the incinerator, and the loss of jobs that would result from such reduced values. Nor did they offset the expected $1-2 million dollars the local community would spend through government and OUE to fight the permitting process.

Also in 1993, OUE hired its second employee (its office manager being the only other one), a professional fund raiser and newsletter editor. His efforts brought the organization a new, slicker and, in some ways more informative newsletter, and with a new name of “OUE Update.” And, the newsletter, mailed out to over 15,000 members between 1990 and 1994, began to raise the large sums of money OUE needed to help pay for the newsletter itself, to fund the HCWC experts, to keep its office opened and its two employees paid.

As all these efforts were being carried out by OUE–fighting on several fronts at once–a crucial change began to occur in the incineration industry: the demand for incinerator capacity in the whole nation began to decline. In part, this was the result of changing technologies of both production and waste management; it was also a result of the success of Greenpeace’s national campaign against incineration, of which OUE had become a part. The anti incinerator forces had unsettled an already unsettled industry and the big hazardous waste polluters–like Dupont and firms in the steel industry–faced an increasingly uncertain future. Would there be incineration capacity, or any waste facility capacity, for their hazardous wastes ten years down the road? Or even next year? The polluting firms’ response was the one that Greenpeace, and OUE, had wanted all along, to use production technologies that generated less hazardous wastes.

Thus, in 1994, after four years of a battle with OUE, USPCI was still years away from getting a permit whose issuing was increasingly in a doubt. Not only that, OUE had vowed that if construction on the project began there would be ongoing, non-violent obstructions for as long as it stayed alive. Faced with a bleak future of declining demand, and having a bulldog symbolically attached to his bottom, in the summer of 1994 Drew Lewis threw in the towel for Union Pacific and for USPCI. At the time, he made the unusual claim that he had decided to do so a year earlier but had kept the project alive from anger that OUE members had come to his home and circulated petitions to his neighbors. This kind of erratic behavior had in 1997 brought Lewis to the end of his career at Union Pacific (and, according to recent headlines about the company’s critical organizational problems perhaps also had almost brought Union Pacific to its knees.)

Union Pacific sold the incinerator site to Laidlaw, Inc., a Canadian conglomerate. However, after surveying the political scene, one Laidlaw official said that if the company wanted to build a waste facility on the site it could “see itself ten years down the road still fighting for a permit.” This conclusion was an atypically wise and sober one for a big waste management company. Laidlaw sold the land to a consortium put together by Union County officials that is now developing a “non-polluting” industrial park on the site. OUE has one member on the planning board for this site and made it clear that the slightest hint of there being a waste management facility, or any other kind of polluting company, on the site would produce an organized, determined, and experienced opposition.

OUE was not surprised that the incinerator plan failed ultimately because of falling demand, for all along it had mocked the state’s demand projections as either bumbling errors or dishonest manipulations. In fact, early on, OUE’s hired experts had shown clearly that the state’s demands were based on faulty assumptions concerning available capacity in the state and the need for new capacity. The state’s plan, like the entire process, reflected the “urge to burn” more than anything else, pushed forward by the powerful combination of politicians and business interests. In 1997, when a state task force, overseen by DEP (the DER had become the Department of Environmental Protection in 1996), adopted a new plan, it was uncannily close to the estimates made three years earlier by an OUE member who had regularly attended the task force meetings. (17)

OUE considered the retreat of Union Pacific as a great victory as well as a confirmation of the idea that NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) was the only strategy that a local community could reasonably undertake to keep out the big polluters. Its members had learned that big industry and big government, in this case at both the state and federal level, would seek out those communities who didn’t fight back for waste facilities sites. OUE arrived at the stance, already maintained by many other grassroots groups who had been there, that those communities that don’t fight back would get all the wastes. Unfortunately, in the current political situation, that means poor neighborhoods in the United States and abroad, unless, of course, they can mount their own rough and ready campaigns.


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