"The integrity of the environment is not just another issue to be used in political games for popularity, votes, or attention."
--from Earth in the Balance by Al Gore
Terri Swearingen has heard enough of Al Gore's promises on the environment. "There may be some that believe he is a premier environmentalist, but not me," says the forty-three year old registered nurse and mother.
For nearly a decade, Swearingen has watched as the children of her quaint, working-class town in the Ohio river valley grow sicker and sicker. "It seems like every day we hear of a new cancer," she says. "Our children are getting cancer at a rate forty percent above the national average. In the past six months we've had two children develop a rare form of eye cancer. Do you know how unlikely that is for a town of our size?"
Swearingen and many of her neighbors in East Liverpool, Ohio, think they know the reason: the 150-foot tall smokestacks of the town's hazardous waste incinerator. Owned and operated by Waste Technologies Industries, the incinerator has become a regional monument of sorts to bad environmental planning. Built on a flood plain just 320 feet from the nearest homes and 1,100 feet from an elementary school attended by 400 young children, the incinerator burns more than 70,000 tons of toxic waste each year.
"Sometimes we go out there and capture on videotape this plume of toxic substances flowing right over the school, which is eye-level with the smokestack because it's on a hill," she says, her voice breaking with emotion.
It didn't have to be this way. Back in 1992, when plans to build the incinerator were still in the beginning stages, the residents of East Liverpool enlisted a weighty ally in their fight. In a campaign stop in Ohio, then-vice presidential candidate Al Gore blasted the incinerator as an "unbelievable" idea and promised outraged environmentalists that the Clinton/Gore team would "be on your side for a change."
He followed up his pledge with an official press release calling for "a thorough investigation" because "too many questions remain unanswered about the impact of this incinerator and the process by which it was approved."
But that was Al Gore the candidate. And in those heady days of the election campaign, he probably didn't realize that one of the financiers of the incinerator was none other than an investment banker from Little Rock, Arkansas, named Jack Stephens. Not only does Stephens finance incinerators, he finances politicians, including the Clinton/Gore campaign to the tune of $100,000 in 1992.
A bank subsidiary of his company even extended the campaign a $3.5 million credit line. Not surprisingly after the election, Gore quickly dropped the incinerator issue-and the plant continues to operate despite repeated failures of quality control tests. Gore has also remained silent on an on-going grand jury investigation into allegations that employees of the North Ohio Valley Air Authority accepted bribes to find the plant in compliance with environmental restrictions. Nor did Gore take a stand when Swearingen and 32 other community activists were sued by the company for $1 million each.
"For eight years we haven't heard anything from him," says Swearingen. "Not even a note back saying he has received our letters. The only reason Al Gore even has a reputation as an environmentalist is because he wrote a book. He says he cares about children. Let him go to East Liverpool and look in the faces of all those parents who send their kids to school 400 yards from the incinerator."