Epilogue to Victory

In November 2001, when Greenaction’s Bradley Angel learned of imminent victory in a five-year battle to shut down Oakland’s Integrated Environmental Systems (IES), his first response was atypical. Ordinarily, such a victory — that IES planned to sell the plant to Stericycle, Inc. and shut its waste incinerator — would occasion jubilation.
After all, shutting down the dioxin-producing smokestacks in a low-income community of color represented a significant win: It was the last commercial medical waste incinerator in the state. And the campaign was not easy. According to Angel, the broad Coalition for Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice prevailed only after it:
• helped convince at least two of IES’ major hospital clients to switch to steam sterilization elsewhere.
• pressured state regulators to issue IES a $975,000 fine in the wake of hundreds of violations.
• helped hold up IES’ pending Clean Air Act permit by persuading air district officials that IES couldn’t comply.
• helped a Modesto County farm community stiff-arm IES’ plan to transfer waste to their local burner.
• resisted a politician’s brokered “phase out” that would have permitted incineration indefinitely.
• confronted the air district with a timely sit-in and the IES plant with equally timely blockades.
• coordinated the work of at least eight groups, from the National Latina Health Organization to Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health.
But after all that, the work was not finished.
“When we first heard the sale [of the plant] was coming down,” Angel said, “the first call was to the union to save the jobs.”
By February, after a call to the Teamsters local, at least three phone meetings with IES and Stericycle, and lobbying of one Alameda county supervisor, two city councilpersons, and Mayor Jerry Brown, the coalition could claim another small victory: Several IES workers had gained jobs with Stericycle and IES’ parent company. In April, Stericycle announced that it would be interviewing more IES workers at a unionized San Leandro medical-waste facility, now under construction.
“We can say we had some initial success,” says Angel. “But we’re still in ongoing discussion with Stericycle.”
But workers weren’t the only ones affected by IES’ announcement. When Stericycle bought the IES plant and its client list in December 2001, the company publicly announced that some of the clients’ medical waste would be burned on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. Two years earlier, after Stericycle took over Waste Management Inc’s incinerator on the reservation, Angel had contacted tribe members and, at their invitation, had begun quietly providing technical and political intelligence on medical waste incineration. When the IES sale was announced, the education campaign intensified, although “in respect of sovereignty, we don’t come in with picket signs,” says Angel.
Fueled by the coalition’s research and support, however, tribal councilwoman Brenda Robertson led a group in distributing flyers, organizing a petition, and making presentations at five reservation district meetings. Contrary to its claims, Angel said, it turned out Stericycle had no state environmental quality permit, did not have a mandate to burn medical waste, and did burn non-medical waste. In the wake of the scrutiny, Stericycle announced that only 1% of IES’ waste would be burned on the reservation. In late March, the tribal council tightened regulations for any amount of waste.
But that may not be the end of it. “A tribal councilwoman,” Angel says, “is leading a movement to throw the incinerators off their land.” Angel says he has also alerted groups near a Utah incinerator serving ex-IES clients.
“Polyvinyl chloride should not be incinerated, period,” he says. “In Oakland, we have a tremendous victory, but we don’t want the problem to get shunted into another community. We don’t want to see dangerous technology, dangerous industries or practices in anyone’s back yard. Not in anybody’s back yard.”

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