By Thomas J. Sheeran
The Associated Press
EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio - Mike Walton compares a 20-year struggle by hazardous-waste incinerator opponents to pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down each time.
"Our shoulders are starting to slope like this," said Walton, 62, bending at the waist.
In 1991, hundreds of people protested against the proposal to build the incinerator, then called Waste Technologies Industries. But as the plant's permit comes up for renewal this year for the first time, much of the opposition has waned.
Now in its 10th year, the Von Roll America Inc. incinerator burns up to 60,000 tons of waste a year. White smoke from its stack along the Ohio River glides across the blue-collar region where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia meet.
"I must be crazy," said Alonzo Spencer, 74, marveling at the decades he has battled the incinerator, first trying to block its construction and now trying to shut it down.
Activists argued in 1991 that emissions would poison the neighbors. They pointed out that the nearest home is one block from the incinerator and an elementary school is four blocks away. Actor Martin Sheen and dozens of others were arrested in protests organized by the environmental organization Greenpeace.
During the 1992 election campaign, vice presidential candidate Al Gore suggested the incinerator should be shut down. But once elected, the Clinton administration said there were no legal grounds to block it.
Protests and emotions peaked in 1991-92 as the incinerator construction neared completion. Five doctors and nurses were arrested when they handcuffed themselves to the incinerator fence. Opponents disrupted an EPA hearing with shouts and jeers and 25 people staged a hunger strike to block the incinerator from opening. One opponent's placard read, "Nightmare on St. George Place," the incinerator's street address.
The incinerator operator responded with storefront locations offering informational videos and counterpoints to criticism.
There were no placards and only occasional glimpses of emotion at a recent public hearing on the incinerator's application to renew its permit. The crowd of about 25 was so small, the meeting was moved at the last minute from a school auditorium to folding chairs on the stage.
The last mass protest was held in East Liverpool more than four years ago, Spencer said. Greenpeace staged anti-incinerator protests in Washington up through 2000.
The operator said the incinerator is safe and deserves a new permit. A decision is expected after the public comment period ends May 9.
"We've demonstrated for 10 years that we operate a very clean facility," said Fred Sigg, incinerator vice president and general manager. "All the fears and allegations that were made before we started up have not proven true."
Speakers at last month's Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hearing were mostly veterans of the incinerator wars and were - for the most part - on a first-name basis with regulators.
"This facility is not trustworthy enough to have that permit," said Virgil Reynolds, 75, of East Liverpool, who said he has battled the incinerator for 23 years.
Terri Swearingen of nearby Chester, W.Va., another longtime critic, fought back tears as she said the permit approval looked like a done deal.
"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes I wonder about this case," she said.
But Cliff Clutter, 56, who's retired from the railroad and trucking business, said he has no problem with the incinerator. He moved two years ago from a home 10 miles away to one a half-mile away.
"When it first came, I wasn't for it," Clutter said. But now, "I think they are complying with what they're supposed to do."
A permit renewal can be denied only for cause, such as failing to comply with regulatory requirements, according to Patricia Natali, one of two Ohio EPA inspectors who monitor the plant full time. They work in a building just over the incinerator fence.
"It is a safe facility," said Natali, who said the plant staff responds quickly to concerns or suggestions raised by the state.
Natali said she was unaware of any unhealthy conditions created by the plant and its emissions.
The other Ohio EPA onsite inspector, Michelle Tarka, bristles at the allegation from incinerator opponents that state regulators treat the plant gently.
Working next door to the incinerator, she said, "We're just as interested in making sure we're protected as they are."
Mayor Dolores Satow was leery about the incinerator when it opened in 1993, when she was the mayor's secretary. She says most people in town have put aside their worries.
Satow also said most incinerator protesters were from outside the city.
"Von Roll has taken part in the community, has supported the community," Satow said. "Now it's time to go to the next thing. Ten years is a long time."
Such talk only emboldens Spencer to keep fighting.
"The level of excitement and attention has changed because you can't maintain that same level for 20-some years. But the opposition, the arguments that we raised in the beginning are as valid now as they were then," he said.
Spencer, carrying an 8-inch stack of papers into the EPA hearing, said the incinerator has a questionable record, including chemical leaks and incomplete records.
The company said it has promptly responded to regulatory demands.
"We operate far beyond the standards that are required for similar facilities in the country," Sigg said.
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