By Randy Cunningham, Chair – Coal and Energy Committee of NEO Sierra Club
On Tuesday night, April 9th, there was a fairly typical dog and pony show held at the Slovenian National Home in Cleveland’s St. Clair Superior neighborhood, where area residents were introduced to the proposed VADXX recycling plant that will take plastics (and maybe tires) and turn them into oil. It is a project that no one else wants except Cleveland – whose specialty is the desperation school of economic development. Residents of such neighborhoods may be poor but they are not stupid, and they know the game. From the drug trade to subprime mortgages, to shoot’em up policing, to dirty industry… their role is to accept what no one else will accept, and tolerate what no one else will tolerate.
I was active in last year’s battle to prevent the City of Cleveland from dropping a garbage to energy incinerator plant into the Cleveland neighborhood surrounding Ridge Road, which is two blocks from where I live. At this hearing I felt like I was a character in the movie Groundhog Day. Here again were the usual representatives of regulatory agencies telling us there was nothing to worry about – which usually means that you have plenty to worry about. Here again were company representatives making presentations full of the usual buzz words that are in fact magical incantations designed to silence those who should be vocal. When you are in a presentation dominated by such phrases as “show case,” “world class,” “innovative,” “growth potential,” “entrepreneurial,” and that old killer “jobs, jobs, jobs,” run for the doors because your brain and sanity are under assault.
The audience at this show did not just listen. They spoke their minds. Bob Greenbaum of the Sierra Club questioned the company on how they could ensure the quality of the feed stock going into the process. Larry Cornett, a retired engineer who has worked on air quality issues, critiqued the permit application. He also questioned the process of scaling up from a demonstration project in Akron, into a full blown facility in Cleveland. The strongest questions came from area residents who wanted to know why this plant was being placed in their neighborhood. They wanted to know why the company said that only plastics would be burned in the process, when the permit said the tires and medical wastes could also be used. Councilman Jeff Johnson wanted to know why an industrial plant was going into a neighborhood zoned residential. A recurring theme in the questions and the discussion during the night was similar to the concerns expressed in the Ridge Road controversy last year. That theme was that Cleveland is already out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. How will a plant, even with a minor emission rating, contribute to the collective air quality problems of Cleveland and this neighborhood? They also questioned what was more valuable – the 17 jobs VADXX has promised to bring with the plant, or the health and well-being of the community.
Little was settled at this public event, but what was evident was that a community educated by hard experience is aware of its rights and will not be easily persuaded or run over by those promising them pie in the sky. It was an example of democracy in action that you do not find in civics books. We will keep you up on how this issue unfolds.