Not In My Backyard

Ohio community fights toxic waste incinerator

Mark Prudowsky, Contributed

WARREN, OHIO — A newly constructed waste incinerator — less than 900 feet from the homes and school yards of the 6th ward, the heart of this city’s African American community — threatens the health of residents of northeast Ohio.

Constructed by Houston-based Browning & Ferris Industries (BFI), the incinerator burns infectious medical wastes from throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It burns 1,300 pounds of waste per hour, 24 hours a day, spewing toxic by-products such as sulfur dioxide, vinyl chloride, and pathogens from diseased tissue samples.

BFI hopes to take advantage of the region’s desperate need for jobs and tax revenues following the decline in the steel industry. It plans to construct 20 incinerator sites in the Ohio River Valley and has already recouped its $3.5 million investment in the Warren incinerator after just four months in operation.

Opposing the facility is the Warren Incinerator No (WIN II) committee. Muriel Robinson, a WIN II leader, told Unity, “They chose this site because they thought no one would care if it was near a Black community. But … there are homes, hospitals, and schools. What’s really scary is that the full effects won’t be known for 20-30 years!”

But already, increased upper respiratory illness and high lead levels in the drinking water are traced to the incinerator. Also affected are people in the mostly white townships of Poland and Greene, who share a landfill where the toxin-laced ashes are buried, contaminating underground waters.

On June 28, WIN II joined people from all over Ohio in Columbus, the state capital, to demand stringent state regulations, including guidelines on air, soil, medical, and water testing. “When the head of a committee blocked  our efforts, we headed over to his office, where we dumped 50 bags of garbage, representing the infectious wastes from all 50 states,” said Ms. Robinson.

WIN II wants the incinerator shut down. Meanwhile, Ms. Robinson says they want the city to levy a tonnage charge on waste burned, and for the money to be used as liability insurance for environmental damages. They want the city to charge BFI a road service fee of $25 per truck, and to restrict these trucks to carefully marked routes.

WIN II also continues its own monitoring. Ms. Robinson told Unity, “I don’t know what they burned there last night, but it must really have been wicked. I had to shut my windows.”

Mark Prudowsky, a Chicago labor activist, met Muriel Robinson while organizing labor support for the Jesse Jackson ’88 campaign. Ms. Robinson co-chaired the local Jackson campaign, and currently co-chairs the Rainbow Coalition in Warren.