When Al Gore was Veep: The Green Imposter
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
The official version of the political battles over the environment in the late 1990s goes something like this:
As the Republican Visigoths swept into control of the 104th Congress, in January of 1995, trembling greens predicted that not an old-growth tree, not an endangered species would be spared. The Republicans’ threats were terrible to behold. They proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They vowed to establish a commission to shut down several national parks; to relax standards on the production and disposal of toxic waste; to turn over enforcement of clean water and air standards to the states. They uttered fearsome threats against the Endangered Species Act. They boasted of plans to double the amount of logging in the National Forests.
Then, the official myth goes on, the president, Gore and the national greens fought off the Visigoths.
American politics thrives on simple legends of virtue combating vice. As regards the environment, the Republican ultras did not carry all before them. They didn’t need to. Clinton and Gore had already done most of the dirty work themselves. The real story begins back in the early days of the administration, when Clinton and Gore had what might be called an environmental mandate and a Democratic Congress to help them move through major initiatives. But the initiatives never happened. Instead, those early years were marked by a series of retreats, reversals and betrayals that prompted David Brower, the grand old man of American environmentalism, the arch druid himself, to conclude that “Gore and Clinton had done more harm to the environment than Reagan and Bush combined.”
The first environmental promise Al Gore made in the 1992 campaign, he soon broke. It involved the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, built on a floodplain near the Ohio River. The plant, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was scheduled to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste a year in a spot only 350 feet from the nearest house. A few hundred yards away is East Elementary School, which sits on a ridge nearly eye-level with the top of the smokestack.
On July 19, 1992, Gore gave one of his first campaign speeches on the environment, across the river from the incinerator site, in Weirton, West Virginia, hammering the Bush Administration for its plans to give the toxic waste burner a federal air permit. “The very idea is just unbelievable to me”, Gore said. “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.” Clinton made similar pronouncements on his swing through the Buckeye State.
Shortly after the election, Gore assured neighbors of the incinerator that he hadn’t forgotten about them. “Serious questions concerning the safety of the East Liverpool, Ohio, hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation”, Gore wrote. “The new Clinton/Gore administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.”
But that never happened. Instead, the EPA quietly granted the WTI facility its test burn permit. The tests failed, twice. In one, the incinerator eradicated only 7 percent of the mercury found in the waste, when it was supposed to burn away 99.9 percent. A few weeks later the EPA granted WTI a commercial permit anyway. They didn’t tell the public about the failed tests until afterward.
Gore claimed his hands were tied by the Bush Administration, which had promised WTI the permit only a few weeks before the Clinton team took office. But by one account, William Reilly, Bush’s EPA director, met with Gore’s top environmental aide Katie McGinty in January 1993 and asked her if he should begin the process of approving the permit. He says McGinty told him to proceed. McGinty said later that she had no recollection of the meeting.
Gore persisted in maintaining that there was nothing he could do about it once the permit was granted. A 1994 report on the matter from the General Accounting Office flatly contradicted him, saying the plant could be shut down on numerous grounds, including repeated violations of its permit.
“This was Clinton and Gore’s first environmental promise, and it was their first promise-breaker”, says Terri Swearington, a registered nurse from Chester, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from the incinerator. Swearington, who won the Goldman Prize in 1997 for her work organizing opposition to WTI, has hounded Gore ever since, and during the 2000 campaign she was banned by Gore staffers from appearing at events featuring the vice president.
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