Devil's Advocate, Please!
On the fifth Anniversary of 9/11, there was no shortage of Vermont political voices making exceptionally bold public statements before the state's TV news cameras. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas sternly stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell in the Governor's Ceremonial Office Monday, making a strong visual statement of bipartisanship.
Also on Monday, Democratic Lite-Gov candidate Matt Dunne stood shoulder-to-shoulder with two fellow Vermont state senators on the shore of Lake Champlain in Addison County.
Both groups were on a mission, but it had absolutely nothing to do with commemorating September 11 and the al-Qaeda suicide strikes on New York and Washington - a day we will never forget.
Instead, Monday's mission was exclusively an all-Vermont mission, and it was all about scoring patriotic political points before the hometown crowds on the day Vermont was losing a battle.
Obviously, being rational Vermonters, you surely see that those damn New Yorkers across Lake Champlain want to poison us! They want to start burning old tires as fuel at the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, New York. They say burning tires would mean burning a lot less fuel oil, save the company money, and keep the paper plant's workers from both states getting paychecks.
According to the N.Y. air-quality permit, IP Ticonderoga wants to do a "test-burn" of "tire-derived fuel" (TDF) along with "No. 6 fuel oil and bark/wood."
But Vermonters know that if IP does even a two-week test burn, toxic pollution will spew out of the stack, float across the lake, and land on innocent, unprotected Vermonters. It'll land on our cows and pastures, and young children will have to breathe it! My God, Ethan Allen must be turning over in his grave!
At least, that's the so-far-unified message Vermont political leaders and media have been pitching.
What our beloved and loyal Vermont pols knew on Monday was, at the close of business that day, the federal Environmen- tal Protection Agency was going to act on the latest Big Bad Battle of Ticonderoga.
And anyone who inquired about the actual record knew the EPA was going to give its blessing - after a 45-day review period - to the New York State air-quality permit that would allow the two-week test burn. Time to man the barricades!
"No tires will be burned without a fight!" promised General Billy. "A big fight!" he added.
"I don't understand why they don't understand," said Gov. Douglas, "that they must install state-of-the-art technology on the IP smokestack first!"
Vermont's guv and the A.G. promised to protest, appeal, kick, scream and sue, sue, sue, in any court that will have them, in order to stop the test burn!
Democrat Dunne, the Lite-Gov candidate, went even further. This future Vermont political something-or-other boldly called for a boycott of International Paper products! No more Postmark®-envelope papers, folks. Vermonters will show 'em!
But no one has been able to explain how these people over in New York can be so mean, ignorant and wicked. How can they have no regard for the health of Vermont's women and small children . . . even our innocent pets?
"IP has always fallen back on this 'We have plenty of room in our permit to legally do this' argument," said the Douglas administration's Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeff Wennberg. "They may or they may not," he conceded, "and the test burn would certainly give some indication of that."
But legality is not the issue here, folks, got that? If one does not like the law, one does not have to abide by it.
"Our concern," said Wennberg, "isn't whether or not the permit will allow the tire burn legally, but whether it is appropriate from the standpoint of protecting human health. In other words, is it sufficiently protective of the health of Vermonters? And whether or not the permit is right," said Jeff the Commish, "we are convinced the health won't be protected without the equipment."
Didn't know Wennberg, a former Republican mayor of Rutland, had any expert medical training, did you?
Pssst! You don't think there's a chance some political grandstanding is going on here, do you?
After all, how can Republican Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont and Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York both support George W. Bush on the issue of the Iraq war and so much more, but will not even discuss the tire test burn in Ticonderoga?
Could Vermont's leaders possibly be crying wolf? As Ch. 3's Adam Sullivan reported Monday evening, Vermont "already sends more than half of its spent tires to plants in Massachusetts and Maine to be burned."
We called the EPA Region 2 head office Monday. It's at 290 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Some EPA employees, we were told, had second thoughts about coming into work on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. But Steve Riva, the chief of the EPA permitting section, did show up. He took our call on the second ring. Said he didn't want to take the day off and spend it at home in New Jersey. He wanted to be busy.
Better sit down for this, folks. 'Cause Mr. Riva sees a very different environmental picture than Vermont's brave political leaders do.
Riva told "Inside Track" that he hadn't spoken directly to anyone in Vermont "at the commissioner level or higher," but had contact at the staff level of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The Vermont staffer, he said, "had just one question, and it was on procedure." He said he heard not a single word of complaint.
"He understood the need for the test," Riva told us, "and the need for a trial. This is not an uncontrolled burning of tires. There are controls in place," he said. "We have to test."
The EPA official actually sounded quite calm, a sharp contrast to the heated chest-thumping and tough talk from Douglas and Sorrell.
"The purpose of the test is to obtain technical information," said Riva. Both New York and Vermont environmental officials, he assured us, will be closely monitoring the IP smokestack emissions during the test. "If they exceed any limitation levels, the test will be stopped immediately!" insisted the EPA official.
Doesn't sound unreasonable, does it?
Later, Bonnie Bellow, public affairs director for EPA Region 2, called to follow up. Like Riva, she was quite calm about what some Vermont political leaders consider the current greatest threat to life on Earth as we know it.
"We have decided, after a careful review of the permit, that we are not going to object to it," Bellow told us. "We have worked very closely with the two states throughout the review, and we are very confident that it meets the requirements that are needed to protect people's health."
The EPA, said Bonnie, "is going to be present to monitor the test-burn during the time that it takes place to make sure that it's done properly."
Funny, but neither Mr. Riva nor Ms. Bellow sounded like right-wing nut jobs. Or like Bush administration flunkies. Instead, they actually came across as open, knowledgeable, seasoned pros. And they said that IP and the administration of New York Republican Gov. George Pataki are playing by the rules.
In fact, said Riva, the area that's expected to get the heaviest dose of particulate matter and pollutants falling to earth from the IP smokestack is in New York State, not Vermont.
Also interesting, even entertaining, is the sight of Gov. Douglas playing the Great Protector of Lake Champlain.
Hey, isn't this the same guy who condemned the Conservation Law Foundation for successfully halting illegal big-box development in Chittenden County?
Wasn't Gov. Scissorhands carrying the water of the Potash Brook polluters (it empties into Shelburne Bay), including a certain shopping-center developer who coincidentally happened to be a big Douglas campaign contributor and backer?
And isn't Douglas the same governor who supported the 20 percent power boost at the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon? Where are we storing the radioactive waste? Oh, in Vermont. Cool.
And isn't this the same governor who since 2002 has been so committed to building the environmentally unfriendly Chittenden County Circumferential Highway that it took environmental groups and a federal judge to apply federal environmental law to stop him?
But a carefully reviewed and approved, two-week, closely monitored test burn of TDF at the Ticonderoga IP plant is the greatest health threat Vermonters have ever faced?
Sorry. Not buying it.
It may play well to the Vermont home audience, but could we please let the facts get in the way, just a little?
Primary News - Seven Days goes to the printer before the polls close Tuesday. So, for Primary results and commentary, please check Freyne Land online for updates. That's our new political/media blog. You'll find it at http://7d.blogs.com/freyneland.
In fact, here's a little Freyne Land taste. A few folks said they found this item about Max Cleland special.
Vietnam Flashback - Didn't see it coming. Thought everything was under control. Me in charge. Was just trying to focus on getting done what had to get done on Friday afternoon . . .
A couple minutes later, Bernie wheeled former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland through the handicap access door, Peter Welch at his side, and the show began. The TVs and the local dailies covered it. Bernie gave the usual stem-winder at the VFW. Veterans issues are near and dear to his socialist heart. For an antiwar kind of guy, Bernie has surprised many on the political left with his focus on veterans, but Vermont vets know, it ain't just talk. And our unscientific research indicates veterans in Vermont make a nice voting block.
It was interesting to watch the legless, one-armed Cleland as he leaned back in his VA-supplied wheelchair to get a better view of Vermont's Ol' Bernardo in action. We're used to it. Max was impressed. Music to his ears.
"Don't you really want this guy down speaking for you, for us, for me and all the people who've served?" asked Max rhetorically to cheers. He called Bernie a "national treasure that this country needs. Not just the state of Vermont, but the nation!"
Cleland noted we now have over 1 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in Century 21. "I'm a Vietnam veteran," said Max. "I've seen this story before." And the speaker joked, "By the way, Bernie, I really wasn't wounded in Vietnam, I just went duck-hunting withDick Cheney."
The crowd roared and Max followed up with, "AsJay Leno said about that incident, at least somebody high-up in the Bush administration has combat experience!"
The Vets panel program ended just before 2 p.m. - on schedule! And we made a dash for the locked bicycle out front and the 10-minute jaunt home to write up and call in the radio report and then head for a Vermont Public Television taping by 2:45. But as I got to the VFW's front door, I realized I'd left my tape recorder back on the banquet room table in front of the dignitaries. Shit!
No panic. Keep cool.
When I went back, there were a bunch of folks crowding the head table wanting to meet Max Cleland. I realized I wasn't going to be able to duck him, after all. And, at least, I had my sunglasses on, eh?
There were Vietnam vets eager to meet him. One woman told him about her dad who had died in Vietnam the same year (1968) Max had been blown up by the grenade.
As the last person left the table, I stepped up to grab my tape recorder. I was wearing my bike helmet. Max, the guy in the wheelchair, looks up and says, "So, you bike, huh?"
"Oh, yeah," I replied, "anywhere in Burlington. Beat the cars, too, and don't have any trouble parking." Muttered something about how I'd lost a ton of weight "to get in shape for the current chapter of life."
Cleland smiled and chuckled. And I tilted my head down so our eyes met over my shades.
The word "Vietnam" needed no mention. The tears welled up fast and Ol' Max saw it. He extended his one hand and gripped mine as we locked eyes and hands in silence for three or four seconds. Then I turned, pushed my shades back up and dashed home on the two-wheeler with tears running down my cheeks.
I was in college in Chicago during the bloodiest parts of the Vietnam War. My number in the 1969 national Selective Service draw, based on birth date, was 146. I was drafted as a conscientious objector and ordered to perform two years alternative service in Minnesota's Twin Cities starting in 1971.
But the gut-wrenching that tore apart America, its families (including mine), its people, and its military due to the White House's deceitful, dishonest and stupid policy in Vietnam is something that for me has always been an institutional memory. It was planted deep in my bones as a teenager following the daily news and attending draft-board protests and antiwar marches in Chicago. And funerals.
As Max Cleland proved on Friday at Burlington's VFW, it's a memory I will never shake, a memory of classmates and friends killed and wounded in a U.S. War in Vietnam that never, ever, should have happened.
Kind of like the one we're in, eh?