Appalachia: a small city's fight against toxic waste incineration

Downtown East Liverpool. Photo: Caitlin Johnson.
Downtown East Liverpool. Photo: Caitlin Johnson.
East Liverpool, a small city by the Ohio river, is a cancer-ridden dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy, writes Caitlin Johnson. With its filthy power station, coal ash lake, 1,300 fracking wells, silica sand mountains and a huge toxic waste incinerator, the city's people need your help in their fight for environmental justice.
As East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area's main industry seems to have become waste disposal and resource extraction.

About 100 miles Southeast of Cleveland, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains along the Ohio River, sits the small city of East Liverpool, Ohio.

Once known as the pottery capital of the world, many of the China and glassware factories have closed, as have the steel mills where many East Liverpool residents once worked.

In its heyday during World War II, almost 50,000 people lived in East Liverpool. Today the city's population tops off at just above 10,000.

Nearly 30% of all residents live below the poverty level. The per capita income is just over $16,000. The unemployment rate is 15%, three times the state average. It's a city where almost every second or third house seems to be abandoned, and not just abandoned. Some are burnt out. Some are falling down.

A 'dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy'

The locals talk about the incessant and merciless drug traffic. They say dealers have come up to the city from the east coast - having found a robust market for heroin and other opiates. The drug trade wreaks constant havoc on the streets. In late September, five people were shot there in a single night.

East Liverpool enjoys another dubious honor: a staggeringly high cancer rate. In 2009, data showed that East Liverpool's cancer rate is 615.8 people per 100,000. The Ohio average is 450.4.

East Liverpool and the tiny towns and villages that surround it are part of the forgotten rural poor in America. Devoid of all economic opportunity, they've become a dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy while simultaneously fueling it by providing coal, oil and natural gas.

If you haven't heard of East Liverpool, don't be too hard on yourself. Until about a year ago, I hadn't either. My job as an organizer for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative took me there. I joined the OOC to start organizing communities affected by fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas from shale formations deep within the Earth.

As I began exploring the rural areas of Eastern Ohio, a colleague introduced me to three men - one in his seventies, two in their eighties - who had been fighting for environmental justice for East Liverpool since the 1980s: Alonzo Spencer, Virgil Reynolds and Mike Walton. Each has been seeking justice for their community.

The toxic waste incinerator - thanks Bill, thanks Hillary!

They are the remnants of a once robust movement to shut down one of the world's largest hazardous waste incinerators, constructed in 1994 and run by Heritage Thermal Services (formerly WTI). Burning 60,000 tons of hazardous waste a year, it has wreaked havoc on our health and our quality of life.

As East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area's main industry seems to have become waste disposal and resource extraction.

Alonzo, Virgil and Mike still write letters to the EPA, the governor and anyone else they can think of. They are still seeking answers to a huge cloud of ash (see photo) that burst out of the incinerator on 14 July 2013, which coated homes and cars in the surrounding area. No one has given them an explanation.

And despite countless violations on its permit, that very same incinerator is now pursuing a permit to expand by 25% - further burdening this distressed community.

They are encouraging all who can to help by sending a letter to the Ohio EPA asking them to refuse the permit - before the 9th December 2014 deadline!

Meanwhile the cancer cases continue to mount. A friend and coworker of mine from East Liverpool knows 12 people who suffer or passed away from blood or bone cancer. Within the last two weeks, she lost two close friends to cancer. In a city this small - this is outrageous.

The common notion is that Democrats are environmentalists and Republicans are not. But the Clinton family and administration had a hand in constructing and protecting the incinerator. Friends and former colleagues of President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the incinerator's initial investors.

The Clinton administration allowed the incinerator to be constructed - 1,100 feet from an elementary school, in the middle of an African American neighborhood, on a flood plain along the Ohio River.

A city under corporate occupation

Indeed, as the area surround East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area's main industry seems to have become waste disposal and resource extraction.

Across the river in Beaver County PA is a coal ash impoundment pond affectionately known as 'Little Blue', possibly because it literally glows neon blue. There are more than 600 permits for horizontal fracking wells within 50 miles of the city in Ohio only. Include western Pennsylvania it's more like 1,300.

Just south of it, in the equally stressed village of Wellsvile, cancer-causing silica sand used for fracking operations is stored in huge uncovered piles just several hundred feet from a residential neighborhood. Down river in Jefferson County is First Energy's dilapidated Coal Fire Power Plant WH Sammis - which the EPA says is one of Ohio's top five polluters.

Last year, as a student at Kent State University, my colleague Amanda Kiger helped researchers from The University of Cincinnati study the effect of manganese emissions on residents of East Liverpool. Preliminary results show a link between the emissions and high rates of ADHD and other cognitive problems among residents. She even saw children display symptoms similar to those with Parkinson's Disease.

And we all wonder why poor folks living in areas like these just can't get a job and make something of themselves?

My family was helped up by a social infrastructure that's no longer there

I'm not from East Liverpool. I am not poor, nor have I ever known poverty. I grew up in a comfortable suburb far from the shootings, drug trade and hazardous waste incinerators.

I am the granddaughter of poor Irish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s for economic opportunity and political freedom. My grandfather got a WPA job under President Roosevelt during the New Deal. He was a laborer who helped build the Terminal Tower. He eventually got a union job at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Factory.

He took three buses to work every day, but made enough money to send his seven kids to Catholic school (It only cost $12 for each child to attend.) They lived in the bottom apartment of a double on West 93rd Street, often sleeping several children to a bed and my mother on the couch in the living room.

Life was hard for my mom's family - but each and every one of those seven children joined the ranks of at least the middle class. My uncles served in the military, and the GI bill sent them to college and law school.

One uncle became a Vice President at both Notre Dame and Ohio State University and another became a judge in Cuyahoga County. My mom received her master's degree from Boston College.

Not only was the social safety net present, but my family was not exposed to the same level of concentrated toxic contamination. Cleveland's air quality was bad when my mom was a child in the 1950s and '60s - but the economic opportunities she had gave her a fighting chance to move someplace healthier. Few people in East Liverpool have that chance. Those that did are already gone.

Time to invest in America's people!

My family is smart and driven - but no more so than many of the people I have met in East Liverpool. The difference is, we benefitted from a more robust social safety net, unions and economic opportunity.

Without access to public transportation, my grandfather wouldn't have been able to make it to work. Without a union, he wouldn't have made a living wage. Without the programs put in place under the New Deal, my struggling young grandparents and their children might not have climbed out of poverty.

In poor neighborhoods across America, rural and urban alike, we must return to investing in our people. Without the New Deal, there would be no Caitlin Johnson - of this I am certain.

It's time to realize that dream for all Americans. And it's time to move to a new economy - one based on investing in people, not investing in resource extraction and waste disposal.

The areas riches in natural resources should not be the areas most plagued by crippling poverty. It doesn't add up. The patterns are far too clear for us to continue blaming individual behavior when the game appears to be rigged in favor of nameless, faceless corporations.

As one resident comments: "We could restore towns and cities like East Liverpool. I mean, we spend billions and billions of dollars on bombs and fighter jets that can kill people many times over, but we won't even invest a dime towards fixing up our old towns and cities that served as the country's foundry."



Action: Ohio EPA is accepting comments about the proposed expansion until 9th December 2014. Be sure to make your voice heard on this issue! Submit your comments to Ohio EPA today. 

Caitlin Johnson is Lead Organizer, Communities United for Responsible Energy - Ohio Organizing Collaborative. She works as a journalist on PBS, and was formerly with CBS News and ABC News, and a Fellow with the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland Ohio.

This article is an extended version of one originally published on Rustwire.