Sparking Controversy

Jason McGarvey
September 01, 1997

Five years ago I was moseying around outside a 7-Eleven in East Liverpool, Ohio, waiting for a friend who was buying a pack of Skittles. Without warning, a woman from a group of protestors accosted me asking, "Do you know they wanna burn hazardous waste in your backyard?"

"Sorry, I don't live here."

"Here," she said, shoving some papers into my hands. "Just sign this. We need to get WTI the hell outta here."

I grabbed her pen and scribbled on the paper. Mine was the last name on a list with about 200 signatures.

"Thanks a lot," the woman said smiling. She seemed to relax a little. Suddenly she jumped over to another guy entering the store and went through a similar spiel.

I didn't really know what I'd signed. I caught a glimpse of something scrawled in black marker on one of the protester's placards: "Tell WTI No WTE in East Liverpool." My friend came out with his Skittles and asked me what they wanted.

"I don't know," I shrugged. "Some kind of environmental group, I guess."

A few months later I read in a newspaper that WTE stood for "Waste-To-Energy," a new breed of trash and hazardous waste incinerators being built across the United States. WTI, or Waste Technologies Industries, was the corporation that had constructed one in East Liverpool. Engineers praised WTE plants as a break-through method of waste disposal because of an incinerator's ability to convert the heat produced from incineration into electrical energy.

Support for WTE plants was also spurred by the scarcity of landfills. So I didn't really understand why people were protesting.

“Don’t Burn It Here” book cover

Then I read a book written by associate professor of sociology Ed Walsh with his colleagues Rex Warland and Doug Smith. Don't Burn It Here: Grassroots Challenges to Trash Incinerators investigates community resistance of eight WTE projects since the early 1980s: five in Pennsylvania, two in New York, and one in New Jersey. WTE plants, the books shows, cause a great deal of controversy.

Walsh, who had previously studied the nuclear energy debate, was looking for clues that could help him understand why opposition groups succeeded or failed. Eventually, he came up with a list of several possible indicators using both the existing social movement literature and insights from supporters and protestors. Among these indicators were the amount of waste a proposed facility would burn, whether or not it would accept waste from outside sources, and the density of the population immediately surrounding it. The list suggested that large capacity plants which imported waste and were sited in heavily populated areas were most likely to be defeated.

In 1989 Walsh and Rex Warland developed surveys and fieldwork protocols to test their list of indicators. They soon found the list was misleading. Take two of their case studies: one in Chester, Pennsylvania, and the other in Woodbine, New Jersey.

"Looking at the indicators," says Walsh, "we expected that the project in Chester would be defeated. The projected size of the plant was enormous—burning about 2,600 tons of waste per day. Advocates also wanted to bring in waste from other counties."

If that wasn't enough, the population immediately surrounding the site was dense—roughly 30,000. But the plant was eventually built. Why?

"As it turns out," says Walsh, "the city's mayor was strongly in favor of building the plant. In fact, she and her administration wanted to build their own plant less than a mile away from the county's proposed location."

Then there's Woodbine, New Jersey. This project turned out differently—the plant was defeated in 1990. But judging from the previous list of indicators, the plant should have succeeded: It was five times smaller than the Chester plant, it wasn't committed to importing waste, and the neighborhood population was only 900.

The authors' research offers persuasive evidence that Owen Murphy, an activist who lived just outside Woodbine, was instrumental in the Jersey defeat.

In 1987, Murphy helped form a citizens' group called the Environmental Response Network. Murphy and the network described the health hazards of WTE plants on television interviews and in newspapers. The large amount of exposure enabled Murphy to form ties with other trash incinerator opposition groups in the Northeast, which eventually led to the success.

"Looking at the achievements of Murphy and the problems encountered by Chester's citizens," Walsh suggests, "provides insights for both future protest movements as well as the incinerator builders themselves.

"But perhaps the most important lesson we've learned from the research project," he adds, sitting in his office crammed with books on protest movements, "is the potential power that small grassroots groups, and even single individuals, really have against large corporations under the right circumstances."

Ed Walsh, Ph.D., is associate professor of administration of justice and sociology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 1005 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1694; Rex Warland, Ph.D., is professor of rural sociology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, 110A Armsby Building; 863-8640; Doug Clayton Smith is a data analyst with the Kentucky Department of Education. Their research was funded by the Ford Foundation's Fund for Research on Dispute Resolution. Don't Burn It Here: Grassroots Challenges to Trash Incinerators was published in fall 1997 by the Penn State Press; 865-1327.

Last Updated September 01, 1997