Fighting Smart

Drag incinerator builders over the coals!

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When Sam Bishop found his children’s bedroom windows were beneath the dioxin-rich plume of a planned medical waste incinerator, he went to work. He reviewed the proposal, taught himself air modeling, and convinced hospital trustees that it was a bad idea. In the six years since, he’s helped close down or block construction of 20 incineration and solid waste projects from the Canadian border to Oklahoma.

A lifelong Republican and former principal of a Wall Street investor relations firm, Bishop is an unlikely eco-gun-for-hire. But armed with colorful maps, graphs, and charts, he’s become the bane of highly paid industry consultants. He’s got a short fuse and doesn’t tolerate compromise. “If you take so much as a cup of coffee from the incineration industry,” he told one activist, “don’t call yourself an environmentalist.” Sam Bishop’s foolproof formula for blocking potentially hurtful public works projects:

Become familiar with all aspects of a proposal by collecting paper from local, state, and federal regulatory agencies. Financial, corporate, and contractual information is requisite, and rarely forthcoming without a Freedom of Information backup. “Every piece of paper is important,” says Bishop. “If you don’t get it early, sometimes it disappears forever.”

“People will always say no to a plant if it’s [obviously] in their self-interest. But you’ve got to broaden the political boundaries.” He thinks the incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, could have been blocked if people from congressional districts all along the Ohio River, where the plant’s toxics get dumped, joined together. “They approached it as an East Liverpool issue. East Liverpool has only one congressman.”

Though Bishop regards most administrative hearings as a sham–“The regulatory agency can reject all the evidence we present and act like it doesn’t exist”–raising every possible objection to a project is imperative in order to appeal the permits in court.

“The most important function of regulatory hearings,” says Bishop, “is to stop the clock. If you don’t, the whole permitting process can be over in as little as 90-120 days. Keep the noose tight around the developers and initiate a lawsuit against the project as soon as the permit to construct is issued.”

The purpose of a lawsuit is not so much to win, but to “buy another two years of time–you’ve got two more years of publicity. Drag the developer over the coals. While the clock is running, he’s paying his lawyers, his consultants, interest on his loans. Every month he’s got to write another check.”

Bishop’s formula worked like a charm in the South Bronx, where a developer used up the proceeds of his 20-year bonds and filed for bankruptcy after lawsuits delayed construction of an incinerator. Bishop dug up records of default on the parent company’s other projects, from New York to Florida, and introduced them into the Chapter 11 proceedings. Now it’s doubtful that anyone would want to invest another cent.

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