Erstwhile cookie-baker Senator Hillary Clinton lost brownie points with Addison County moms for supporting a test burn of tires at International Paper in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Last Saturday, members of two Addison County citizen groups, Moms for Safe Milk and People for Less Pollution, held a bake sale on the Middlebury village green in an effort to stop International Paper from incinerating 72 tons of old car tires per day -- a process critics charge would introduce dangerous levels of dioxins, heavy metals and other carcinogens into Vermont. More than 150 people hawked homemade cakes and pies -- and raised $800 -- ostensibly to assist the company in purchasing a $9 million pollution-control device known as an electrostatic precipitator.
In April, Clinton sent a letter to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), urging approval of IP's application to conduct a two-week test burn in its paper-mill boiler. She noted that International Paper believes that burning tire-derived fuel (TDF) at the 80-year-old Ticonderoga plant will save the company $1.5 million in energy costs annually, and preserve some 700 jobs there.
"I know that some are concerned about the potential air quality impact of burning tires at the mill," Clinton wrote. "I have been assured that the TDF trial would be conducted within all of the mill's current permit limitations."
Ben Davis, an environmental advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, lambasted Clinton for her assurances about the burn's safety, calling them "totally irresponsible." Davis claims her letter to the DEC revealed "zero understanding of the process."
In fact, Vermonters of all political stripes are dumbfounded by the New York Democrat's decision to support a plan that is so potentially toxic -- both environmentally and politically. Vermont's entire congressional delegation and the editorial boards of most of the state's newspapers have condemned the burn proposal. In March, five Addison County towns passed resolutions expressing concerns about its potential impact on human health and the environment.
Just last week, Governor Jim Douglas wrote to Clinton to chastise her for downplaying Vermonters' health concerns. Douglas noted that IP hasn't yet submitted a completed application to the DEC. Therefore, he said, "political leaders should not jump to [the] conclusion" that the burn can be done within the plant's existing air-quality parameters.
Republicans across the lake have a different view. Four lawmakers -- New York Congressmen John Sweeney and John McHugh, as well as State Senator Betty Little and Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward -- have endorsed IP's proposal.
So why would a Senate Democrat back the burn? Repeated phone calls seeking clarification from Clinton's Washington, D.C., office were not returned. But political theories are already circulating. For one, Clinton's old Little Rock law firm represents International Paper, according to the legal database Martindale-Hubbell. And the Whitewater Development Corporation, the company at the heart of the '90s political scandal that bore its name, once purchased several hundred acres of land from International Paper for $500,000.
Clinton might find herself in yet another North Country environmental battle, which has received virtually no media attention in Vermont. A cement plant in Ravena, New York, about 10 miles south of Albany, is seeking permission from the DEC to burn tires at its facility, too. Lafarge North America, the French-based owner of the Ravena plant, is the largest cement manufacturer in North America. The company recently applied for a permit to burn 4.8 million tires a year in its two cement kilns.
Although Hudson Valley environmentalists haven't had an opportunity to weigh in on that permit application, they are closely watching its progress. The reason: Apparently, Lafarge hasn't been a very eco-friendly neighbor.
Peter Jung is president of Friends of Hudson, a citizens group based in Hudson, N.Y. According to Jung, Friends of Hudson recently conducted a detailed analysis of Lafarge's air-quality reports to the DEC and found 483 "compliance deviations" since the company bought the plant in 2001. In its first year alone, according to Friends of Hudson, Lafarge was fined $276,000 by the DEC for "major permit violations." As a result, Friends of Hudson fears that burning old tires there could create even more air-quality headaches.
Susan Falzon, Friends of Hudson's deputy director, notes that incinerating tires runs contrary to New York's scrap-tire management plan, which calls for finding more responsible ways to dispose of old treads. Nevertheless, she fears that letting two industrial facilities burn tires in the North Country could be viewed by some as a quick fix to that state's tire glut. "The truth is, New York, like almost every other state, is willing to take the easy way out," Falzon says. "Sometimes it's easier to get someone to burn tires than to get someone to do something useful with them."
For his part, Jung couldn't say whether or not a DEC approval of the International Paper application in Ticonderoga would affect the Lafarge application in Ravena -- they are two separate industries and use different incineration processes and pollution-control technologies. That said, however, "Lafarge would be delighted if Ticonderoga got their permit because that sort of opens the door and creates a precedent," he says.
So far, Senator Clinton hasn't taken a public stance on Lafarge's tire-burn application. But a corporate spokesperson confirmed last week that she sat on the Lafarge Corporation's board of directors between 1990 and 1992. Should Clinton come out in support of that tire burn as well, enviros on both sides of Lake Champlain say they'll be laying tracks to her front door.