EAST Liverpool is a town that lost the middle ground.
For 12 years, residents have fought each other over a proposed hazardous-waste incinerator. It now appears that the plant will not open, after all; but this Ohio River city is exhausted and divided by its long ordeal. East Liverpool is an example of an environmental debate gone wrong.
"It's another cornerstone for creating a polarization of environment versus industry," says Joe Heimlich, an environmental education professor at Ohio State University's School of Natural Resources. "We're automatically set up for a lose-lose situation."
"Either fire it up or close it down," says Sarah Wilson, the local city councilwoman who heads the city's incinerator liaison committee. "I want a final decision to be made so we can get on with our lives."
The extremes are sharply drawn because each side has so much invested in the outcome.
Supporters want the incinerator, run by Waste Technologies Industries, because it means jobs. East Liverpool, like many communities along the Ohio River, is economically depressed.
Waste Technologies promises to hire 125 people, not counting the construction jobs already generated; pay $1.7 million a year in local taxes; and pump an extra $600,000 annually into the city in fees.
In mid-December, the company and community supporters ran advertisements in the New York Times and other national newspapers to call attention to the city's economic plight. The ads were headlined: "Please Mr. President-Elect, Give Our Town Hope." Many of the supporters are business owners.
But the idea of a waste incinerator incenses residents who would have to live by it. The plant sits on a broad, flat bank of the Ohio River. High up on a bluff, overlooking the plant, stand a row of houses and, across the street, an elementary school.
Residents there argue that the plant, just 400 feet from their homes and 1,100 feet from the school, could release harmful pollutants into the air.
"Incineration is not an answer to our hazardous-waste problem," says Alonzo Spencer, president of the Save Our County organization. The group formed in the mid-1980s to stop the plant. "We hope they shut this facility down, tear it down, and move it out."
That may be what happens.
Until this month, Waste Technologies seemed on the verge of starting operations. It survived a court challenge last month in West Virginia, which lies just across the river. The plant is undergoing tests for an all-important trial burn, planned for early next year.
But on Dec. 7, Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr. appeared to scotch those plans. He said the new administration would not issue a permit for Waste Technologies' trial burn until the General Accounting Office (GAO), an arm of Congress, had conducted a thorough review.
The move may spell the end of the waste project.
"At this stage, any delay in the opening of this plant will kill this project," says Julia Bircher, a spokeswoman for Waste Technologies. The plant is losing $115,000 a day because of the delays.
Mr. Gore said the GAO investigation would center not only on the environmental impact of the plant but also on how Waste Technologies got the permit in the first place.
At least one official of the US Environmental Protection Agency charges that the agency broke its own rules in order to push the permits through. Detractors say the permits are flawed.
"Our permits are legal and enforceable," Ms. Bircher counters. "Many of the delays have been political."
Both sides in East Liverpool claim they represent the majority of residents. The reality is that the community is sharply divided.
"It's divisive," Ms. Wilson says of the plant. "I work in a hospital and on one side there's someone who's for it and on the other side is someone who's against it. And you have to smile at them all."
Lost in all this is the question of how the upper Ohio River valley and the rest of the United States is going to deal with its growing heaps of trash.
"There are certain waste streams that are best handled by incineration," says Dan Chang, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis.
The real issue, he says, is how it's managed. "There's no question in my mind that if you operate poorly you can emit things. But there's no reason to operate poorly."
"If you took away all the hazardous waste incinerators, that would really promote the need to develop alternate ways" of handling the material, says Ralph Rumer, executive director of the New York State Center for Hazardous Waste Management.
The problem is that communities aren't any more willing to host a landfill or other waste facility than they are an incinerator.
One way to encourage them is to hold a kind of auction, Mr. Rumer says. The state, which has the authority over siting permits, could offer a community, say, $5 million to host a waste facility. If no community accepted, the award would be raised to $10 million and so on, until some town snapped at the bait.
A better solution is to reduce the waste at the source, Rumer and other experts agree.
What is needed in these environmental debates, Professor Heimlich says, is a range of voices so that people do not get their information from just two, polarized groups.
That did not happen in East Liverpool.
"Whatever happens, those separations will remain," Heimlich says. "I would love it if we would walk away from this and say: `You know, we all lost.' "