Remembering Hillary Clinton support for Vertac, a hazardous waste site

Remembering The Vertac Site: How Clinton Supported One Of World’s Worst Hazardous Waste Disasters

A woman who grew up in Jacksonville, Arkansas publicly remembered Clinton’s role in making the Vertac site in Jacksonville (Pulaski County) one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites. The Vertac site is famed as “Arkansas’s most publicized Superfund site. The Facebook user named Lindsey said to fellow Facebook users that just before Bill Clinton sworn in as president, the former Governor of Arkansas, “approved the largest voluntary release of dioxin on a population in history in my town, via the vertac incinerator.”

Lindsey says that people in Arkansas fought the incineration for about a decade before Clinton approved it.

“We fought him on it for ten years but it was one of his last acts as governor. I say we fought it meaning my mother, dragging me along with her BC I was a very small child. I believe by the time they burned it i was 10. And we fought it for years before that. Then I think the burn persisted for 2 years. The incinerator was located maybe 2 miles from our air force base and directly across the street from a hospital and daycare center. I have watched countless people die from cancer. I have seen babies die from drinking formula mixed with toxic tap water. In fact we have a section of our local cemetery called baby land where too many babies are buried from this.”

Lindsey says that she had reproductive problems after she grew up, including a miscarriage that she associated with the incineration at the Vertac site in Arkansas.

“I have had reproductive problems my entire life leading to a miscarriage last year all of which can be associated with dioxin and agent orange exposure. My dad now has cancer like so many others in this town. I have lost every pet I have ever owned to leukemia and cancer. It seems like every dog here gets breast cancer, even males.”

Others on social media are bringing up the same claims.

According to Encyclopedia of Arkansas, in Arkansas, “‘Vertac’ soon became synonymous in Arkansas with the fear of industrial pollution,” but Clinton doesn’t shoulder all the blame for the site. For decades it was used to produce herbicides, including the compounds in Agent Orange. In 1978, Vertac Chemical Corporation of Memphis, Tennessee, obtained the site. In 1979, dioxin was found in a nearby creek. A judge ordered Vertac to build a wall around its waste pond. By 1985, the EPA told residents that their water wells were poisoned with dioxin.

But then, surprisingly, in 1988, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the EPA “completely downgraded its assessment of dioxin’s toxicity, a decision that came under serious criticism, especially given other recently published studies on the detrimental effects of dioxin upon the immune system and its link with cancer.”

The EPA and the local regulatory powers originally decided the toxic waste should be incinerated as part of the cleanup. In 1989, local residents filed a lawsuit to stop the incineration. In 1990, The New York Times reported that Jacksonville, Arkansas was slated to “become the site of the nation’s largest incineration of dioxin,” unless residents won their fight.

The Associated Press reported at the time.

“In court papers, the environmental group said the state and federal governments are ‘proceeding with what is estimated to be the largest release of dioxin into the environment in the history of the world, without having done their homework in even the most rudimentary fashion.'”

“Most of the barrels are full of chemicals like DDT, aldrin and dieldrin, wastes from more than three decades’ production of pesticides and herbicides,” The New York Times reported in 1990. “But state and Federal health officials say they have found no evidence of illness that could be linked to the toxic waste. And the Environmental Protection Agency says the incinerator will reach such high temperatures – 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit – that it will destroy all but infinitesimal traces of the chemicals.”

“The chemical is itself a mystery. In laboratory animals it causes cancer, birth defects and developmental defects, and it reduces immunity to a variety of diseases,” The New York Times reported in 1990. “But there has been no documentation of these effects on people, even though dioxin has long been a focus of scientific and environmental inquiry – at the center, for example, of the long-running dispute over the possible effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam. The only ailment dioxin is known to cause in humans is chloracne, a skin disease. ”

Just two years later, The New York Times reported that Governor Bill Clinton, after overseeing the investigation into incineration at the Vertac site, gave final approval to burn the toxic waste only to be temporarily stopped just two days later by a Federal district judge “to give scientists time to review the results of safety tests.” This came as the Clintons were preparing to exit the Governor’s mansion in the same county in Arkansas as the Vertac site and enter the White House.

It all led to Clinton eyeing the presidency with a poor environmental protection reputation. See, people remembered that in 1987 (just two years before citizens filed the first lawsuit to stop the incineration), Bill Clinton signed into state law Act 761 making so that the industry and politicians would not be held liable over activities like the incineration. Accusations by environmentalists were that Clinton likely at least speculated that the cleanup plans were not as safe as they were purported to be.

“He’s been beaten up pretty bad over this,” Kenneth L. Smith, Clinton’s top environmental adviser at the time, told The New York Times. Smith countered the criticism that was thrown at Clinton, by saying that Clinton did have the accusations of health issues investigated.

For example, when a Jacksonville family claimed that the toxins killed their infant son and caused a seizure disorder in their older son, Clinton called for an investigation from the state health department and the CDC, but no link was found.

“The Governor always kept the goal in mind of doing something to eliminate the threat out there,” Smith said. “He kept at it because he always felt that leaving the wastes just sitting there was the worst thing that could happen.”

According to the book “Toxic Loopholes,” it was Greenpeace that eventually discovered a cover-up pertaining to the incineration at the Vertac site. In fact, by the time the judge halted the incineration with the temporary order, local blood levels of dioxin had already quickly risen by 22 percent, Greenpeace claimed.

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s Democratic primary rival visited the Vertac incinerator and accused Clinton of relaxing the environmental standards to benefit his campaign contributors, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The groups that study the environment feel that Clinton has been very deficient on environmental grounds,” Jerry Brown said. “To please some of his business friends, he has relaxed environmental standards. Everybody knows that.”

Of course, Brown had also accused Bill Clinton of funneling money into his wife’s law firm while governor.

Hillary Clinton speaks during Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign
Hillary Clinton in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 4, 1992, during the presidential campaign [Photo by Bill Sikes/AP Images]

It turned out that the Vertac incinerator actually was producing more hazardous waste than it was destroying, Arkansas state officials claimed.

The Vertac incinerator was eventually shut down by a U.S. District judge, but it was finally clear that EPA scientists had known since 1985 that the incinerator could not actually achieve the clean burn the people had been led to believe it could, according to the book Dying from Dioxin. Reportedly, EPA officials told the public hundreds of times between 1985 and 1994 that the incinerator could perform an efficient clean burn. It wasn’t until the U.S. District judge asked the EPA’s lawyer if the kind of efficiency they were telling the public could actually be achieved by the incinerator, that the people learned the truth. The lawyer said that they would not be able to prove that the incinerator could destroy the waste efficiently without releasing toxins back out, as the EPA and Bill Clinton had reportedly publicly claimed.

With all of the scandal involving the Clintons in the news this election year, does it shed new light on the Vertac site dioxin disaster in your eyes?

[Photo by Greg Gibson/AP Images]