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Rising From The Ash

by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

While the report on Spokane’s waste-to-energy plant in this week’s Inlander (see burned) focuses primarily on the financial and health risks associated with the facility, I was, from the first time I began discussing the possibility of publishing the report, fascinated by the political history of the episode. Larry Shook and Tim Connor, who authored the report, which was commissioned by the Northwest Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), were, too. But in tightening down the piece (to a measly 12,000 words), the civics lesson was edited out. I’d like to revive some of that because I think it offers perhaps the most profound lesson of the incinerator. The following is a passage from one of the early drafts of the report:

"There is one memory that Ora Mae Orton figures on taking to the grave. It is of the September evening in 1989 when armed, uniformed Spokane police officers temporarily barred the white-haired grandmother and her friends from the City Council chambers. On that particular evening, the Council was to sign a contract for the construction of Spokane’s garbage incinerator. Representatives of the building trades were there in force to show their support, summoned by Alliance Pacific, the public relations consortium hired to sell the project to the citizens of Spokane. The union members wore hard hats bearing the word "Wheel," as in Wheelabrator - the contractor that would run the facility.

The pro-incinerator demonstrators were fed a buffet dinner in the art gallery outside the glass wall partitioning the Council chambers. When the Council was about to convene, the construction workers were cordially ushered into the chambers, the policemen letting them pass. The workers filed down the aisles and filled up all the front row seats, the television cameras dutifully recording this display of overwhelming support for the burner.

Opponents of the project were nowhere in sight, however. That was because the police had orders not to let Orton and dozens of other opponents in until the sea of hard hats, a hundred or so, occupied the front of the auditorium.

Orton still remembers the way she and her fellow opponents felt - like intruders in their own city, she says. Ora Mae had a guest with her that evening, a visitor from the East Coast, a veteran of the boisterous New England town meetings whose roots are mingled with the very origins of American democracy. The visitor was flabbergasted. "She couldn’t believe the city would use its police that way," says Orton. "She couldn’t believe how polite we were, that no one was sassing."

Orton filed a complaint with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.

"One police officer," she wrote to PDC investigator David Clark, "commented to an early arriving incinerator opponent that he was not a bit happy with what was going on and the job he was ordered to do."

The signing of the contract recalled above came only after the city successfully sued the citizens of Spokane, who had gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot. The state supreme court ruled 5-4 that the citizens’ right to vote, in this case, didn’t outweigh the elected officials’ decision. That was a good thing for the backers of the incinerator, since it is widely known that when citizens vote on incinerators, they almost always reject them.

The Spokane waste-to-energy plant was born of good intentions. In the early-1980s, Damon Taam, who now oversees the facility, was a young engineer faced with the haunting knowledge that Spokane’s landfills were leaching pollution into the groundwater. But when you apply the experience of town after town across the country to what happened here, it appears that good intentions and the announcement that "something has to be done" was like blood in the water. Soon the sharks were circling.

Considering that this political process included contravening the citizens’ desire to have a say and using Spokane’s finest to assist in the PR effort, is it any wonder now that we have a facility that has been burning unknown waste from the oil fields of Alberta for four years and has operated without any oversight since August? Kind of makes you feel a bit exploited, perhaps how they feel in the Third World.

The lesson in all this? Perhaps in analyzing the decision-making process surrounding an issue that has had time to fully germinate, people can see that the political correctness of the day can be a trap. In other words, the incinerator may be an example of the "naysayers" being right. Most of the community was skeptical, but instead of following those instincts, the city built the plant.

Serious questions are raised by the NEEF report, and in answering them, the overarching objective should be to answer them in a way that is good for all citizens and goes the farthest to healing the social fabric that has been so badly damaged in what one elected official called "Spokane’s Vietnam."

To attempt to conclude the conversation by saying that Spokane stopped the Canadian shipments, or that the city’s charge for garbage pick up is lower than Seattle’s isn’t enough. Not even close. Lingering issues raised by the report include:

Was local health put at risk in the last few years as unknown wastes has been burned at the plant? This question can begin to be answered by producing the documents that show what was burned in Spokane. U.S. Customs at Blaine, Wash., denied turning over such documents, and Taam says he doesn’t know how much Canadian waste has been burned here. Pleading ignorance simply won’t work, however, as the experience of other cities proves that silence on this issue is no guard against health-related lawsuits. Columbus, Ohio, for example, is being sued by an entire neighborhood for health problems citizens claim were caused by the local incinerator. Columbus officials disagree, but the courts - juries, perhaps - will decide.

Has the plant been mismanaged to the point of suicide? By operating outside of federal regulation for months (as enforced by Eric Skelton, director of SCAPCA), did the city open the door and roll out the red carpet to both citizens of Spokane County and ratepayers of Puget Energy to bankrupt the facility? According to a recent Supreme Court case, flow control that requires county residents to use the incinerator is on shaky enough ground, and if the plant operates outside its permit, as it apparently has since August, Puget officials say their contract to buy the plant’s power could be voided. If either of these situations comes to pass, the best city residents can hope for is a state bailout.

Did the city live up to its bargain? While choosing the incinerator and ignoring the impulse of the populace, the city did commit to look out for the public health. But the comprehensive study promised when the state kicked in $60 million for the plant is still unfinished. It is expected to be in the city’s hands by April, but the only problem is that officials in two other states have called the integrity of the author of the health report into question. The city even fired the manager of the Solid Waste System, Phil Williams, for having an affair with her.

Even if you believe that Kathryn Kelly is qualified to complete the study, isn’t the city playing with fire by submitting her study to the Department of Ecology? The last time the city underestimated DOE, it may have cost $9 million in spending on a bridge with no permit. But the bridge project can simply be abandoned; local human health, which is waiting on the results of the study, is a pricless commodity.

If, as scientists believe, dioxin is, gram for gram, as potent a carcinogen as plutonium-239, the villain of Hanford, and if municipal waste incinerators can be viewed as dioxin factories, as sources in the NEEF report say, then it may be useful to view the pleasant white building on the West Plains as a potential Hanford just upwind of metropolitan Spokane. This may sound hysterical, but with no health study to argue otherwise and with an institutional attitude that the federal Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to the facility, it may be the only kind of mindset that will begin to create an environment in which we err on the side of public health. We’ve erred the other way for long enough.

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