Much was promised when one of the world's largest commercial hazardous waste incinerators was being planned, and later, built, in East Liverpool, Ohio's East End. The big parent company that owns and operates the facility, Swiss-based Von Roll, would be like a magnet that would attract other industries with its hazardous waste incinerator operating here.
That was the biggest hook: The city would return to its glory days, when it was the world's pottery capital. There were other promises, too, like streets lined with shops, restaurants, boutiques, cafes, and maybe even nightclubs. A little ice cream parlor perched on the northwestern bank of the Ohio River maybe? And the city's police and fire departments would have their coffers stuffed with cash, made possible through the taxable revenues provided by the hazardous waste incinerator, which at the time, was billed as a steam-energy provider that would provide cheap power to any industry or business settling near its belching smokestack.
Figuratively, anyhow, these promises meant East Liverpool's streets would be paved with gold. In reality, driving down some of the city's worst streets these days is like negotiating a vehicle down a Third World goat path. A motorist needs to keep a vehicle well under the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit or a flat tire, a broken tie rod, or a busted shock or strut would surely be the result. Some streets are so bad, like Fourth Street, where a popular hot dog shop, the town’s daily newspaper, The Review, and a little junior college, the Kent State University East Liverpool campus sit, that a motorist cannot drive more than 5 miles per hour or a front-end alignment and new shocks would be needed.
Even the lucrative tipping fees that Heritage Thermal Services' predecessor, WTI, once paid to the City of East Liverpool have been lessened by great numbers. These days, Heritage Thermal Services doesn't even call these allocations 'tipping fees', but rather, `gifts'. And the city's police and fire departments - which would never be without new vehicles and equipment - are in financial dire straits, as well as other city departments. The operating budget of a poor, distressed, Appalachian, river city is akin to an almost-empty cupboard, a group of concerned citizens told me on Aug. 12.
And there has been no renaissance. There never has been anything even resembling a rebirth or revitalization; and actually, East Liverpool's streetscapes offer the direst, most depraved and destitute sights any Appalachian river town has to offer. Businesses have closed because of a flight of people leaving town. There is a myriad of empty storefronts and downtown retail buildings have been razed. Even some of the saloons and taverns have been boarded up with `CLOSED' signs propped up in their dusty cobwebbed little windows that once held a neon sign with `OPEN' blinking on and off.
East Liverpool is a small city that is fast becoming a village. In another few decades, it might become a virtual ghost town. In 1990, its population was just under 14,000 and these days, city residents are estimated to number a little over 10,000. That's quite a drain on what makes up a city - its people.
First proposed in 1979 and touted as a great provider of jobs and prosperity, in the 1990's, when the incinerator was being built, East Liverpool became the center of national controversy. Originally operating under the business name Waste Technologies Industries (WTI), these days, the company operates under the name Heritage Thermal Services.
Parent company Von Roll has had more than its share of scandals, too, including the conviction of three of its top Swiss executives for their role in 1991 of selling weapons in parts of Iraq. And there have been a number of serious environmental infractions at the company’s Swiss facilities.
Meanwhile, in Ohio's southern Columbiana County, Heritage Thermal Services' smokestack, burning ovens, offices, and storage yards sit on a flood plain, on top of a high-yielding aquifer, and this plant was built on heavily polluted grounds. A little more than 100 yards away, there are residential homes and Heritage Thermal, then WTI, was constructed on a hill a mere 1,100 feet away from a 400-pupil elementary school, which stayed in operation up to just three years ago. This school's elementary teachers were instructed to put wet blankets and towels over the school's windows in case there was an emergency situation at the incinerator. They were told to close windows and doors of their classrooms. Teachers were told to dampen the towels and blankets using buckets of water to cover `Shelter in Place' legal requirements for emergency situations. But there was no plan to control things in the event of an explosion, which would blow out the school's windows, said Mike Walton, a 75-year-old, lifelong East Liverpool resident who has fought the hazardous waste incinerator since it was being planned, and who serves as a trustee and board member of a local opposition group, Save Our County.
Alonzo Spencer, president of Save Our County, a group fighting for total closing of this facility, said, "The Columbiana County Commissioners owned this land originally. They should have been cosignatories but got around a lot of the legal problems by selling this land directly to WTI.
All this time, WTI was being built during the time the Commissioners were planning ways for the WTI deal to be wrapped up and finalized." In March, The U.S. EPA alleged that 195 incidents occurred between November 2010 and December 2014 at this plant and that Heritage Thermal Services exceeded the allowable total hydrocarbon emission rate for burning toxic hazardous waste at its facility. During this time, Heritage Thermal Services also failed to meet operation limits and requirements - such as temperature and pressure - that are specified through federal regulations and are mandated in the company's operating permit, according to the U.S. EPA's official statement on Heritage Thermal's alleged violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act.
Members of CURE and SOC are asking for an independent study to fully review the practices of this company burning hazardous waste, since it first began operating in May, 1997. Environmental disasters have been frequent and many at the plant, and Ohio Citizen Action chronicles a long inventory of these ecological atrocities, as well as other mishaps and scandals, in a comprehensive report here.
"These alleged violations may have caused excess emissions of hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals and soot," the U.S. EPA's statement reads. "At the last count, Heritage Thermal Services employs about 180 people," Spencer said.
"I'd have to say that most who are working there once lived outside of this area," said the longtime activist, who lives in the city’s East End and is a neighbor to this smoky dragon.
Spencer said he sent a registered letter to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on May 27 and a worker at the Attorney General's Office signed for it on June 1. The letter asked for DeWine's office to intervene and take action against Heritage Thermal.
"We want an independent study performed on these 195 violations, which go back only four years, and we want the Attorney General's Office to look into violations that occurred before this time, too," Spencer said.
However, on the morning of Aug. 12, Spencer said he called DeWine's office and spoke to the worker who signed for the letter, but this individual asked Spencer for the tracking number of the letter so the letter could be found. In other words, it sounds as if somehow, some way, this very important epistolary was lost. How can a registered letter be lost? That's the whole concept about paying the extra money to send a registered letter, right? So it could be accounted for and not lost?
What toxins have Von Roll's WTI, and later, its Heritage Thermal Services, been pouring into the skies in East Liverpool? Well, it's known that lead, various dioxins, cadmium, arsenic, and manganese are on the list, but many other types of hazardous pollutants are included, too.
"They really don't know what all they're burning. It's a big mystery," Spencer said solemnly and with a bit of anger.
"They're allowed to emit four tons of lead a year into the air," Walton said. "The EPA is okay with that. Up until about three years ago, 600 children grades Kindergarten through sixth were attending school only 1,100 feet from its smokestack. How can this not be a problem?"
According to Walton and Spencer, Herb Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor who is a leading world expert of the harms lead causes to humans, and was even instrumental in ridding lead in gasoline, said he couldn't believe that the government would allow for such a facility to be built.
"Needleman said the children in this area would be like canaries in a mine shaft," Walton said. "I talked to an engineer who was working on the construction phase of WTI. He told me that he wouldn't live within 100 miles of East Liverpool, because of the chemicals that would be burned at WTI," Walton said in disgust. The aerial photo below shows the placement of this hazardous waste incinerator. It is located very close to the Ohio River, a major feeding source for the Mississippi River Watershed; and it is planted on a flood plain and within a residential area. A few major highways are very close to this industry, too. Surreptitiously touted, and using erroneous and misleading public relations tactics, Von Roll's big push in the 1990's was that the stack and the incineration plant would be anchored in a relatively remote locale.
Another company in East End, close to Heritage Thermal Services, S. H. Bell, which handles materials used in making steel and iron - heavy metal chemical additives - has been another major air polluter over the years. But the CURE and SOC representatives I talked to said S.H. Bell has made some adjustments and the company is not nearly as bad as it once was.
"There used to be this fine dust all over East End. It settled on cars, buildings, and houses and was almost like a moss," said Jenny Boyle, president of East Liverpool Communities United for Responsible Energy (EL - CURE).
Within a heavy industrial corridor stretching only about eight miles are also two coal-fire power plants along with the nation's first commercial, pure-power, nuclear plant, brought on-line during the Eisenhower Administration, Walton said.
Perhaps the worst environmental menace - even a more ominous threat to health and well being than Heritage Thermal Services, however - is Little Blue, a holding lake for fly ash and nuclear matter. Little Blue straddles the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line and lies near Hookstown, Pa., a neighboring village close to East Liverpool, Walton and Spencer said.
Little Blue is a regulatory nightmare because of its location. Sitting right on the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, it is hard to determine which state has jurisdiction and responsibility for overseeing and regulating this fly ash lake, thick with radioactive substances. Also, Little Blue is situated near the Ohio River and a plethora of wells nearby have been contaminated. People have had to give up family farms because of this groundwater pollution. And First Energy's nuclear operating company has had to buy out farms because of the ruinous nature of 'Little Blue'.
Amanda Kiger, CURE's Ohio Valley Organizer, said you can see liquid glowing, looking at this lake, saying seeing such a sight is not only surreal, but frightening.
"Little Blue's fly ash has a lot of arsenic in it. Now it's solidified mostly, and is not a liquid. It's more like a sludge. You can taste particles of dust in your mouth if you go through Hookstown. This dust flies around and is airborne," Kiger added. Little Blue sits right above the intake value for East Liverpool's water supply and Walton said that he fears with the reckless and slipshod way in which this area's political leaders, the EPA, and other powers-that-be are managing things in this toxic narrow corridor, Little Blue's contents might taint East Liverpool's bathing and drinking water.
"This place has been turned into an industrial sewer. In the area of cancer rates, we're 186 points above the national average," Walton said. "We're a total sacrifice zone," Kiger said.
"The powers-that-be know what's happening here and they feel that it's important for not only the nation's, but the world's economy, to keep things going as they are. They don't care about East Liverpool and the other communities around here."
"The EPA, especially the Ohio EPA, is a facilitator, not a regulator," Walton complained. "I'm not saying that the federal EPA is that much better, but at least they're not holding hands with these violators."
"The hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool is the brainchild of the hazardous waste industry. They don't want to see this facility fail. And they're concerned about us. They should be, if they aren't," Spencer said.
"Three monitoring sites around East Liverpool found that we have the nighest levels of magnanese in Ohio. A University of Cincinnati and Kent State University researching joint venture did studies and they determined that the neurotoxin manganese taken from children's hair here was the highest in the USA," Walton said.
"So this shamed city officials and three years ago, they brought in an entourage from San Francisco State University that did an adult study of manganese," Walton said.
The results were just recently released and the findings concluded that East Liverpool adults have very high levels of manganese in their systems. Manganese can lead to mental instability, memory loss, problematic motor functions in the brain, and sundry other neurological disorders, he added.
"Mayor John H. Payne (who served from 1980-1983) brought this facility here," Spencer said.
The facility was built under then-Mayor Jim Scafide's watch (Scafide's mayoral reign lasted from 1988-1995). Scafide has gone on to bigger and better things, and according to his LinkedIn page, today is principal owner of Scafide Law Firm, PC, in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Both Payne and Scafide were Democrats while holding office as East Liverpool's mayor. Dick Celeste (D), who served as Ohio's Governor from 1983 until 1991, and George Voinovich (R), who served as the Buckeye State's Governor from 1991 to 1998, were Ohio's top political leaders when the crux of the planning, construction, and first burns of the then-WTI were in full swing. Jim Rhodes, a Republican Governor who was in that office from 1975 to 1983, was Ohio's top dog when the initial plans for this facility was in its infancy. And the Clinton-Gore Administration was at the national helm when the incinerator went on line.
During a stop on the campaign trail nearby Weirton, W.Va.. during July, 1992, Gore said: "The very idea of putting WTI in a flood plain, you know it's just unbelievable to me. But the longer range larger answer to this question is to reduce the amount of garbage and waste we are producing, re-engineer our processes to be more efficient and recycle all of the waste that we possibly can so we don't need these incinerators.... I'll tell you this, a Clinton-Gore administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We'll be on your side for a change instead of the side of the garbage generators, the way (previous presidents) have been."
Gore's words later, on December 7, 1992, in a press release stated: "Serious questions concerning the safety of an East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation." Vice-President-elect Al Gore added that he and his colleagues "are asking the General Accounting Office for a full nvestigation." Gore also said,
"The new Clinton-Gore Administration would not issue the plant a test burn permit until these questions are answered." "For the safety and health of local residents rightfully concerned about the impact of this incinerator on their families and their future, a thorough investigation is urgently needed. Too many questions remain unanswered about the impact of this incinerator and the process by which it was approved," said Gore.
Within weeks, however, Clinton and Gore caved in, and during this time, WTI created a national controversy, with many major media outlets looking for articles to publish, and for news bites to sound off on, about WTI.
Progressives and liberals oftentimes love to beat up on Republicans for anchoring ecological nightmares, but in all fairness, historically, anyhow, it seems as if Democrats have been even bigger scoundrels and rogues than any local or state Republican leader. And although Mike Walton laughed when asked if Gov. John Kasich showed any interest in looking into the 195 recent clean air violations that the EPA hit Heritage Thermal Services with in March, there has been a host of Democrats leading Ohio and our nation out of the old millennium and into the new who've had a hands-off, if not even an aloof and cavalier attitude, regarding the continued operation of this alleged serial polluter.
Two federal legislators who are both Republicans, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Sixth District U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, have not been receptive at all to CURE and SOC members' complaints about the environmental problems that Heritage Thermal Services poses, however. The the incinerator's opponents that I talked to from SOC and CURE had praise for State Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D-33rd), and say of all the elected officials they've worked with, Schiavoni has been the most proactive in looking into what's been going on at Heritage Thermal in the way of clean air violations. Some had praise for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, as well, and a few even said that a Republican State Representative, Timothy E. Ginter (Ohio House District 5), has been receptive and seems to have an interest in the alleged wrongdoings that have occurred over the years at WTI and later, Heritage Thermal Services.
Yes, between 17 to 25 years ago, WTI was at the center of not only local controversy, but was a spitfire for state and national media havoc, too. Fast forward to more than two decades later and all that's left is a small handful of dedicated opponents to Von Roll's smoking dragon on the banks of the Ohio River. The throngs of protesters and opponents have disappeared.
Press reports are few and far between and even local and regional media outlets normally give only brief accounts of what's happening at Heritage Thermal Services. Unfortunately, the option of leaving town is not an option at all for a crux of city residents, many who live in poverty, without the wherewithal of leaving town for a better place to breath the air.
"The way I see it, people who live in East Liverpool are dead before they die. If they're not sick and eaten up with cancer, they're without hope. All that's here are bars. The city's flooded with heroin and most of the big drug dealers are from out of town. Even the landlords are from out of town. The only people left here are those without any means to leave," said Jenny Boyle, EL-CURE president.
"The typical resident who lives here is more concerned with the crack house on the corner of their street, the city's high crime rate, or about the lack of jobs. The hazardous waste incinerator isn't much of an issue for them," Boyle said. Most city residents are "apathetic and disengaged" about Heritage Thermal Services.
The hazardous waste incinerator has been operating since the spring of 1997 and other concerns have surfaced, she said.
"Many people here feel that the EPA will not allow anything to come into the community that would hurt them," Spencer said. "Nothing can be further from the truth. The fact that Greenpeace kept two of its employees living in a house in nearby Chester, W.Va., for a few years (in the early 90's) shows that the hazardous waste incinerator poses a real threat to the environment and to the health and well-being of people." "This place has turned into an industrial sewer," Walton said, with much vitriol. "We're 186 points above the national average for cancer. USA Today published a special report that showed that East Liverpool had the highest concentration of airborne manganese in the United States, and East Elementary School (at 1417 Eruria Street), topped the scales."
Last week, I met with some of the city's and county's activists - some who are members of Save Our County, others who are with Communities United for Responsible Energy, while a few are concerned citizens.
We were seated around a table in the J.C. Thompson Building on the Diamond in the heart of downtown East Liverpool. (The J.C. Thompson Building is the structure at immediate center-left in the above photo - directly behind the red car.) They were an energetic bunch, with a lot to say, and sometimes a few of them were talking at the same time.
When asked if there has been any actual development or prosperity in the city, Kiger said, "All we've seen is demolition of buildings."
"There has been a steady downtown of property values. Property values always go down," Kiger said.
"My mom owns The Tropic Shop, the only full-service pet store in this area, and she can hardly afford to pay her one employee. My mom works 60-hour weeks there. It's hard to believe business is so bad - you have to go to Pittsburgh or Youngstown to find another full-service pet store," said Mandy Heddleston, a CURE member.
Sara Mushweck, who owns the J.C. Thompson Building, said, "I bought this building two years ago when the downtown revitalization was supposed to happen. Everything is at a full stop. Even businesses that move into town seem to stay in business for only a few months."
"I've been very disappointed since I moved back here nine years ago after living in North Carolina," Mushweck said.
"I bought the J.C. Thompson Building because it was going to be torn down. Two years ago, the building used to hold a tax service, but they moved to a new building in Calcutta."
"They originally pitched that WTI was going to be an energy provider and they would bring a lot of business here because WTI was going to provide cheap energy," Walton said.
"Years ago, the East Liverpool Chamber of Commerce issued a white paper that guaranteed that only steam would be emitted from that stack. That company was never intended to be an energy provider. The truth is, Heritage Thermal Services and its predecessor, WTI, have been nothing but a lie since day one. In actuality, dioxins, the most dangerous chemicals known to man, are being churned out of that smokestack," Watson said.
Spencer said a plethora of companies did not want WTI to begin operating in East Liverpool. The East Liverpool Chamber of Commerce was the only organization to give the hazardous waste incinerator a hearty welcome. Even East Liverpool City Council voted 4-3 in opposition of Von Roll's company to be anchored in East End.
"That vote has never been changed or challenged by city council. It remains the same decision today," Spencer said. Spencer said although the city hasn't seen much growth in the past two or three decades, there have always been rumors of a plant or some kind of industry moving in - but little in the way of results come to be.
"There was even talk of a bread company moving a big operation here, but what kind of bread maker would want to have their plant located near a hazardous waste incinerator?" Spencer added.
Comments are closed on this story.