By Donella Meadows
–September 17, 1987–
As I go back and forth from the pro- to the anti-incinerator side of the controversy in my valley, I can’t find any villains. What I find is capable, likeable folks on both sides, who can’t agree on where to put their garbage because they can’t agree on where to put their trust.
Al Haley the operations manager at our local Signal Environmental Systems incinerator is a wiry, energetic, can-do sort of guy. When he shows off his plant he apologizes for the dust (I hadn’t noticed any dust). The start-up period messed things up, he says, but he’s got the problem licked, and the place gets cleaner every week.
Al thinks the pollution-control procedures he has to follow are a nuisance, but he does them with care. He’s an engineer; he leaves the environmental fights to others and does his best to comply with whatever regulations come along. He gets mad at people who say that no one who works for the plant will live there; he wants it known that he lives right nearby. The plant’s safe and it’s performing well, he says with a shy smile, “because I’m running it.”
Connie Leach, project manager for the Solid Waste District, is a long-time environmentalist. At Williams College she started a recycling program; she has a master’s degree in natural resources at the University of Michigan. She says it’s hard to be on the incinerator side of the fence, but that’s the best place for a steward of the environment to be — inside, working on solutions, rather than outside pointing a finger.
Connie wants to make the incinerator part of an active recycling system. She insisted that the road to the plant be paved with glassphalt from reclaimed glass. She has set up buckets for old batteries at stores, so people can recycle them when they buy new ones. Signal has negotiated “put or pay” contracts that require towns to pay for their quota of trash whether they send it to the incinerator or not, so there is a strong disincentive for recycling. But Connie says that as the towns grow, recycling will pick up.
Keith Forrester, environmental engineer for Signal, can’t understand why everyone is so worried about lead in incinerator ash. Of course lead is dangerous, he says, that’s why it’s regulated. It’s probably the most well-studied toxic substance in the world. The regulations have safety factors built in; the Signal plant meets the regulations. What’s all the fuss about?
I can’t resist poking to see if Keith’s trust in technologies, plant operators, and regulatory agencies is genuine. I mention uncertainties about lead testing, changes in the safety standards, mechanical slip-ups. He’s unshakable. He responds with streams of technical explanations. Error, corruption, inattention, and plain old ignorance really don’t exist in his world.
Bill Gallagher of Working on Waste (WOW), the citizens’ group opposed to the incinerator, doesn’t trust regulators at all. “We never get anywhere if we go to a regulator,” he tells me. “The Water Supply and Pollution Control people say the incinerator isn’t their problem until groundwater is actually contaminated. Boy, does that make me feel protected! They’re going to test quarterly, and the incinerator has to fail tests consistently before they’ll take action. The plant could be polluting for a year before they’ll admit there’s a problem!”
“In this state the air pollution agency is in one place, water in another, solid waste in another. There’s no coordination, and none of them welcome citizen intervention. The director of the environmental agency used to be a Signal executive. Now he’s regulating them! We’re supposed to trust this process?”
Members of WOW include two carpenters, a farmer, a nurse, two housewives, a retired steel executive. Their conversation is about EP tox tests, fly ash, dioxins, and permits. They’ve educated themselves to know a lot about this plant that has impacted their lives. They spend their evenings having meetings, going to hearings. Their spouses keep asking when this trash business will be finished so they can see the kitchen table again. “The pastures are going downhill, the cows are jumping out, we’re in debt to the lawyers,” Bill’s wife Sally tells me, but she’s not complaining. She’s in the fight herself.
“Do you want a clean incinerator or no incinerator?” I ask the members of WOW. They want no incinerator. They want a recycling system run by citizens. They want to be dependent on themselves, not on experts, regulators, and distant companies.
Al Haley trusts himself to run a good plant. Connie Leach trusts the ongoing process, as long as environmentalists become a part of it. Keith Forrester trusts the industry and the regulators. Bill Gallagher trusts the common folks. Each of them is basically saying, “Trust me and people like me. And don’t trust them.”
Most of us in the valley are not involved in the fight. We lean back and generate the garbage and watch with amusement or bewilderment as these wonderful characters confront each other, lay procedural traps for each other, and seek by force and counterforce some acceptable way to handle our trash and to protect us from pollution. Whomever we end up trusting, we owe some appreciation to our fellow citizens who are willing to engage, to take a stand, to put their lives, credit ratings, cows, and fences on the line, to make sure the issue of public trust is raised, again and again, for us to decide.
Next week, what’s in the way of recycling?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987