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Toxic Burning Site an Environmental Nightmare for Clinton

April 13, 1992

JACKSONVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ When Sharon R. Golgan describes her city, she calls it a nightmare.

Bill Clinton might be tempted to do the same.

For as long as he’s been governor, Clinton has been caught in a bitter struggle over tons of toxic remains from a chemical plant that produced much of the Agent Orange herbicide sprayed during the Vietnam War.

State and federal agencies are cooperating in the destruction of 30,000 barrels of chemicals. Many are laced with dioxin, a compound so toxic it prompted the town of Times Beach, Mo., to be abandoned.

Indeed, the dioxin concentrations in chemicals being burned here are sometimes even higher.

But even as the incinerator here burns night and day, Golgan and other environmentalists are trying to stop the government - and the Arkansas governor who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

″He has no regard to the environment at all,″ said Golgan, 43, a leader of local protest groups.

″We’re mad at Clinton because he has never taken a stand except for incineration,″ said Ruby Brown, a 60-year-old widow who is president of People Against A Chemically Contaminated Environment. ″I take no pleasure in saying I feel like Jacksonville is a dumping ground.″

Critics argue that unburned dioxin escapes into the air during the incineration process. They say the waste material instead should be stored or exported - or perhaps destroyed with some new chemical technology.

Kenneth L. Smith, Clinton’s special assistant for natural and cultural resources, said the governor backed incineration because it was the only disposal method the Environmental Protection Agency would permit.

A dense, white smoke shoots up from the incinerator’s short stack, barely 300 yards from scores of homes. It is one of the few visible signs of what worries this town next door to Little Rock Air Force Base.

Three sites covered under the federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup program are located in Jacksonville. One is the former dump where the incinerator now burns. The two others are landfills.

The town is one of only a handful of places where dioxin has been incinerated, and federal officials say more of the compound has been burned here than anywhere else in the country.

Chemicals and herbicides were produced at the plant under various owners dating to the 1940s, including much for the military.

Local environmental groups say contamination over the years has caused cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and infant deaths. State and local officials say there is no scientific evidence to back that up.

″I’m not aware of any massive health problems in the city of Jacksonville,″ said Mayor Tommy Swaim.

No one doubts that pollution has spread from the site over the years. Fishing and swimming have been banned in Lake Dupree at a nearby city park. Wells and property were contaminated.

And dioxin from the plant found its way into Bayou Meto, prompting the state to ban commercial fishing for 100 miles downstream to the Arkansas River. The bayou, once a source of catfish, will be unfishable for hundreds of years, officials acknowledge.

John Wicklund, a consultant to EPA on the project, said that once the thick toxic stew inside the yellow plastic drums is destroyed the plant’s soil and buildings themselves are to be incinerated. Waste once dumped freely in the landfills will be dug up and burned.

The state learned of the dioxin in Jacksonville in 1979, the year Clinton was first elected governor.

He eventually sided with EPA in agreeing that incineration was the best way to get rid of it. The state took over responsibility and found a contractor.

Since then, Clinton has become the target of opponents of incineration.

Two years ago, Golgan led a group of grotesquely costumed protesters who attempted to present Clinton with a ″Mutant Award″ - a one-eyed happy face. More recently, protesters denounced Clinton in the state capitol, and questions about Jacksonville have been hurled by environmentalists as he campaigned outside the state.

With data from air monitors, opponents recently forced the state and EPA to acknowledge that test burns didn’t destroy dioxin to target levels. But EPA dismissed the findings as meaningless.

″What they’re doing is scientifically and morally reprehensible,″ said Pat Costner, toxic research director for the environmental group Greenpeace. ″They’re proceeding in just flagrant disregard for public health.″

Clinton pushed the burning despite a 2-1 vote against it in a 1986 city referendum. A state court later overruled a city ordinance banning incineration.

″Believe me, incinerators are controversial,″ said Allyn M. Davis, EPA hazardous waste director. ″I would very much like not to use incineration on the Jacksonville site. Unfortunately, it is the only proven answer.″

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