Alonzo Spencer, president of Save Our County, speaks during a demonstration at City Hall decrying a hazardous waste incinerator run by Heritage Thermal Services in East Liverpool on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. The EPA recently detailed serious and repeated pollution violations. Citizens have fought the presence and operation of the incinerator for decades. (Dispatch Photo by Barbara J. Perenic)

Alonzo Spencer, president of Save Our County, speaks during a demonstration at City Hall decrying a hazardous waste incinerator run by Heritage Thermal Services in East Liverpool on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. The EPA had recently detailed serious and repeated pollution violations. Citizens have fought the presence and operation of the incinerator for decades. (Dispatch Photo by Barbara J. Perenic)

Alonzo, you’re on the board for CHEJ. How did that happen? What’s your connection to CHEJ?

I’ve been on the board of CHEJ for over 25 years. I met Lois before she formed CHEJ. She’d come [to East Liverpool] to testify — we were battling this facility here and she came and testified on our behalf and then when she formed CHEJ, I think maybe a year or two later, and I accepted.

What was Lois coming to testify about?

In our community we have the world’s largest hazardous waste facility permitted. We’ve been trying to stop it from day one. She and I knew some of the same people and we invited her here to testify. She came and helped demonstrate.

What hazardous waste facility?

Heritage Thermal Services, formerly known as WTI.  

We’ve been fighting this since they started. We took action against permitting them to build. We requested that both the state and federal EPA monitor them, and they’ve had numerous violations cited against them. This facility should have never been built from a legal standpoint, environmental standpoint, or health standpoint.

How did you become active in the organizing community? Why fight against Heritage Thermal Services?

Well, you know originally when this was first proposed I was in favor of it, at that time, keep in mind we didn’t have any organization here. First, they said it was going to be safe, and it was going to attract industry. They were gonna sell cheap steam and electricity. To apply for their permits to build they were required to hold these hearings. We found out by attending these hearings their original statements were false. It was introduced to us as a “Waste to Energy Facility” but we found out it was actually a hazardous waste facility. So we learnt from that. Then we formed Save Our County and that was started to oppose the facility.

What is your organization up to now?

We are currently in the midst of a lawsuit against Heritage Thermal Service regarding their classification as a habitual violator by the U.S. EPA. We’ve been in court [with them] a number of times. We are set to go October 17th in the United States courthouse in Youngstown, Oh regarding our suit. We are going to present to the judge what we’d like to get out of the suit. Fighting Heritage Thermal Services is my organization’s, Save our County, main concern. We have other organizations throughout the country that our fighting their own local battles and we have gone to them and assisted them. We help other organizations in the same way that CHEJ does. We’ve learnt that from being affiliated with CHEJ.

What did you start off doing in activism?

Demonstrations at first. We held demonstrations at the facility. Martin Sheen came once and 33 of us got arrested, including Martin. We had a trial [regarding our arrest] and we won our case! We were charged with trespassing and we went to court we had a trial and we were found innocent. We had peaceful demonstrations here, demonstrations in D.C. and we were arrested there, too.

What effect has Heritage Thermal Facilities had on your community?

Right now, East Liverpool has been designated by the Ohio Department of Health to have a higher cancer rate than the state or national average of health. We were told this was going to happen to us before the Heritage Thermal Services moved in, and time has proven it to be true. Our school age children are breathing this poisonous air which has had an affect on their learning ability and attention span. We have a high rate of children with learning disabilities. This was all predicted. They said it would be a while, ten to fifteen years, and now it’s all come to fruition.

What would you recommend to communities for advice in organizing?

The first thing we tell communities is to organize and try to put people in positions of authority that are on your side, in other words, councilmen or commissioners. You have to make sure these officials understand the negative effects and are on your side, that they understand what’s going on. Ask them questions, do they know about the effects that the facility will have on the environment? These facilities have such a dramatic negative health effect on this community. This is a very important aspect that groups have to address before getting started.

Any words of advice for citizens trying to organize?

Do not be mislead by what these facilities say initially. Try to find out as much as you can about the facility itself, what they are going to do, and try to make sure that they are held accountable for all of their violations.