Hazardous-waste disposal: coalitions 'show both sides' to a wary public

The decision of California-based International Technology Corporation (IT) not to build a hazardous-waste treatment facility in Warren, Mass., has been called a modern version of ''David and Goliath.'' In this scenario, the Warren townspeople chanted ''not in my backyard'' lustily enough to scare the company back to the West Coast.

But that depiction is too narrow, other observers say. Beyond IT's decision looms a larger question: Is it possible to locate a hazardous-waste facility in the state?

Since 1980, when the state enacted the Hazardous Waste Facilities Siting Act, four companies have proposed building waste treatment facilities in Massachusetts. Like IT Corporation, they have all backed out.

This has led some people to question the terms of the siting act: whether it is too restrictive, or gives local residents so much say that building a facility in the state is virtually impossible.

Amanda Dicker-son, executive director of the Hazardous Waste Facilities Site Safety Council, says the siting act ''addresses people's concerns, and provides a forum for developers and citizens to deal fairly with one another.''

Redmond Clark, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Management's (DEM) Bureau of Solid Waste Disposal, says terms of the siting act are not the real issue. ''You've got to deal with public confidence before you can talk process,'' he says.

In keeping with this theory, the DEM is promoting grass-roots public participation. Eight groups across the state ''have begun to tentatively address waste in their regions,'' Dr. Clark says. The coalitions, sponsored in part by the DEM, may include representatives from industry, labor, government, and citizen and environmental groups, he says.

Roger Hoffmann of Taunton, Mass., is a member of one such coalition. He says in 1982 his community was a possible site for two treatment facilities. At that time, he says, ''I didn't even know what hazardous waste was.''

Both proposals were dropped, but Mr. Hoffmann says he wanted to know more about hazardous waste. He initiated the ''waste-watcher committee'' in his neighborhood association, the Whittenton Community Forum. That committee is now linked to the Southeast Task Force on Environmental Management, one of the eight coalitions supported by more than $100,000 in grants from the DEM.

Hoffmann says his committee is encouraging local companies that produce hazardous wastes to show the public how these wastes are being managed. Last year six or seven nearby companies - including Taunton Silversmiths, Texas Instruments in Attleboro, and ICI Americas Corporation in North Deighton - opened their doors, he says. Polaroid is holding an open house next week.

Clark of the DEM says ''gaining the public confidence is tough in general. (People) look at the thousands of Superfund sites (across the country), and can say 'this happened under regulations.' There is a real basis for concern.''

Yet, through the efforts of the coalitions, ''some people in communities (across the state) are seeing the need for facilities. They realize that responsible waste management includes facilities,'' he says.

''We're showing both sides of the issue, so that people will be able to make up their minds, based on factual evidence,'' Hoffmann says. Members of the Taunton coalition have also organized neighborhood forums, been on radio talk shows, and sponsored hazardous-waste essay and poster contests in the local schools.

He hopes the Southeast task force will become a regional resource for people seeking information on hazardous waste.

DEM Commissioner Jim Gutensohn credits the coalitions with initiating ''a subtle shift of public attitudes on hazardous waste.'' People are becoming at least ''willing to entertain a proposal.

''There is no other choice but to solve the problem. We're convinced that (working to gain public confidence) is the way to go, and we're going to make it work.'' But, he says, it will take time.

In fact, public confidence has not been restored in Warren. Earlier this week Linda Smith, a member of the citizen-group Stop-IT, accused state officials of holding secret negotiations with IT officials to encourage them to reactivate their proposal.

John T. Schofield, senior vice-president of IT, says his company ''has no intention of continuing'' with plans to build. He says proceeding with the proposal would cost the company millions of dollars, and would almost certainly involve lengthly litigation.

A meeting of the Hazardous Waste Facilities Site Safety Council, which was overseeing the IT proposal, was scheduled to be held in Warren last night. At presstime, it was uncertain whether the council would take steps to formally terminate the IT proposal, or whether new developments would be announced.

Commissioner Gutensohn says state efforts to build coalitions are part of a package to facilitate siting a treatment plant.

Massachusetts businesses, from dry cleaners to computer manufacturers, produce more than 150,000 tons of hazardous waste each year, according to one private-sector study. As much as 75 percent of it is sent out of state for disposal. Two-thirds of the manufacturing jobs in the state are tied to companies that produce hazardous waste, according to the study.

The DEM says it is encouraging waste producers to reduce the amount of hazardous wastes they create. The state must take the initiative in finding companies to locate in Massachusetts, he says. There are companies with fairly good track records, and the DEM is furnishing them with assessments of the state's needs and regulations of the siting act, he says.

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