By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Ripton resident and environmental activist Joanna Colwell is pleased to hear the state of Vermont is pursuing legal action through state and federal court systems to try to prevent International Paper (IP) from conducting a two-week tire burn at its Ticonderoga, N.Y., mill.
But on Oct. 28 in Middlebury, Colwell and other like-minded citizens plan to bring IP before the court of public opinion. They are organizing an event called “Line up to Sue IP,” during which citizens from throughout the state will be asked to sign a petition in protest of IP’s proposed test burn, scheduled to begin on Nov. 6.
Colwell is hoping that media footage of throngs of protestors lining up on Middlebury’s town green will put additional pressure on the company to stop its proposed tire burn, an event opponents believe will spew harmful toxins into the air and across Lake Champlain into Addison County.
If IP is not swayed by public participation in the event, Colwell said the signatures will help fortify a class-action, citizens’ lawsuit against IP if the public suffers any ill effects from the two-week trial burn.
“The threat of a citizens’ suit is perhaps more daunting to IP (than other legal measures),” Colwell said. “When they see people out in numbers, maybe they’ll think, ‘Our shareholders aren’t going to like this.’”
Gov. Jim Douglas and Attorney General William Sorrell announced last week that Vermont had filed a suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit asking the court to stop IP’s tire burn in order to allow for a full review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and an opportunity for Vermont to make its case in federal court.
The state’s main argument has been that IP should install a state-of-the-art pollution control device — called an electrostatic precipitator — on its mill stack before conducting its test burn of up to 72 tons of tire chips per day during the two-week trial period. Vermont authorities believe an electrostatic precipitator is needed to capture the smallest, potentially toxic particles that figure to escape the IP smokestack
International Paper officials argue that current pollution-control devices at the plant are adequate for the test. The company is hoping the two-week test clears the way for IP to replace a substantial portion of its oil fuel stream with cheaper tire-derived fuel.
Vermont’s legal efforts, to date, have failed to sway the New York Department of Conservation, the EPA and New York state courts, which have consistently sided with IP.
That has been frustrating for Colwell, a member of two tire-burn opposition groups called People for Less Pollution (PLP) and Moms making Our Milk Safe (MOMS).
“To date, IP has been creeping forward with its plan, and now has a date for the tire burn,” Colwell said. “What is it going to take to stop this?”
Colwell believes the answer lies in more public outcry and more aggressive lobbying by Douglas.
“I believe the reason we’ve held them off for this long — three years — is due to citizen involvement,” Colwell said.
With that in mind, she urged Vermont’s chief executive citizen — Douglas — to take what she believes would be two huge steps to thwart IP: Pleading the state’s case to New York Gov. George Pataki, and traveling to IP’s corporate headquarters in Tennessee to speak with CEO John Faraci.
“I would like to see some stronger actions on the governor’s part,” Colwell said.
Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs said the governor has already taken one of Colwell’s recommendations to heart.
“The governor has already made several calls to Gov. Pataki on this matter, most recently around a month ago,” Gibbs said. “Gov. Pataki has unfortunately joined Sen. (Hilary) Clinton (D-N.Y.) in supporting the tire burn.”
Gibbs stressed that Douglas has not ruled out any diplomatic or legal avenue — including visiting Faraci — in an effort to get IP to postpone its tire burn until it installs an electrostatic precipitator. Gibbs said Douglas would also welcome a visit from Faraci.
“We would much rather the International Paper CEO come to Vermont to hear what Vermonters have to say, but this gentleman probably doesn’t have the nerve for that,” Gibbs said.
In the meantime, Gibbs said the Douglas administration will wholeheartedly support the Oct. 28 protest in Middlebury — the governor’s hometown.
“We want to bring as much public pressure to bear in this effort as possible,” Gibbs said, adding “part of our legal strategy is to encourage these organizations to consider citizen lawsuits.”
Colwell is hoping for a hefty turnout for the event, which will last from noon to 3 p.m. Organizers will bake tire-shaped chocolate cookies to feed citizens as they are lining up to sign petitions. Plans also call for some music.
“We want people to be happy while they’re standing in line,” Colwell said.