If You're Not at the Table, You're on the Menu

On a hot July evening in 1996 about a hundred people from Portage County gathered at Ravenna High School to hear the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Preliminary Environmental Investigation report on the Ravenna Arsenal site in preparation for turning the grounds over to the Ohio National Guard. Local, state and national legislators or their representatives were present, along with Ohio EPA and Army people.

The Preliminary Assessment identified 10 sites within the Arsenal fence as being of highest priority for testing and remediation. The most optimistic timetable for the cleanup was 10 years --"IF the funds are forthcoming from Congress"-- at a cost of about $160 million.

From the citizens there was the usual undercurrent of distrust of the government/Army ("Yeah, we remember when you told us there was no danger to testing atom bombs, and that those Stealth bombers flying over Las Vegas were giant bats...") but no outright hostility. In fact, a number of people volunteered to be on the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) -- a citizens' committee to oversee the cleanup.

In 2005 the Ravenna Arsenal cleanup is unfinished, stalled over how to deal with buildings saturated with residues of explosives and coated with paints containing PCBs. The latter problem didn't even surface until 2001. The surfaces contaminated with PCBs are best treated by breaking them up and removing them, but mechanical demolition processes frequently cause deadly detonations of old, unstable explosives permeating crevices, pipes, fixtures, walls and floors.

PCBs are toxic, but as long as they are bound up in paint they are relatively easy to manage. The best way to destroy them is thermal decomposition -- burning. But burning PCBs releases dioxins that present other hazards, many not well understood.

The Army has proposed a controlled burn on Load Line 11, lying two miles inside the perimeter fence, of some buildings with known quantities of PCBs in the paint. Plans have been drawn up by a private engineering firm and independently audited; they must be approved by the USEPA and the Ohio EPA, and will be subject to weather conditions. An important reason for this trial burn is to gather information about how much dioxin is released and what happens to it, so that future cleanups -- both at the Ravenna Arsenal and at other sites --can be made safer and better.

There is opposition to the burn. Because the Ravenna Arsenal is a place where the rubber of grass-roots concerns and fears about health and safety, regional economics, politics and priorities hits the road of the Federal budget, partisan ideologies, national priorities and the fables promulgated by the Bush White House and mainstream media, it's also a place where neighbors fear that without a place at the table where decisions are made about their lives, they're going to be on the menu for "the government".

Actually, the infrastructure of democracy is pretty good for the Arsenal cleanup, with an active Restoration Advisory Board and responsive, responsible people from the Army, OEPA, USEPA working for a good cleanup despite low budgets, aging equipment, entangled jurisdictions, proliferating regulations, and constant criticism from the public, the media and politicians.

Over the years I've seen people in Portage County doing democracy pretty well. Citizens have worked together to use local, state and federal resources to build one of the finest social service networks in the nation, including outstanding food programs, excellent shelters for battered women and the homeless, and an award-winning clothing center. Portage County has a model recycling program; Kent created a river-restoration project for the Middle Cuyahoga River that is better than anyone imagined possible just a few years ago.

In these instances (and many others) we have made sure stakeholders were at the table with government officials, and that the menu was our agenda for a better quality of life for all of us.

President Bush's budget proposal has made very clear who's at the table and who's on the menu for the next four years. It's not a budget for democracy -- it's designed to eat up or starve out programs that help local communities deal democratically with things on their agendas: environmental cleanups, social services, policing, schools, and medical care.

I'm reasonably confident Portage County people will get the Arsenal safely cleaned up, especially if we can avoid demonizing the government representatives, make common cause with them, and recognize that they are up against the same problem we have: a President determined to dismantle democracy, and a Congress willing to serve the American people as lunch to their large corporate contributors.

Our challenges go beyond Portage County. Ohio parents, students, property-owners and community groups need to pull up chairs at the table where school funding is being discussed and work out a way to fund schools that is constitutional and equitable.

Ohioans should stop dithering about same-sex marriage and "intelligent design" and get actively engaged in discussions about major quality-of-life issues: E-Check & clean air, energy efficiency & conservation, college costs, jobs, health care.

Nationally, all Americans must challenge Bush's plans to serve Social Security to Wall Street for lunch, and to continue feeding our youth and the Iraqi people to an unwinnable war.

Democracy is hard work and doesn't guarantee any particular outcomes. But it pays off when people work together democratically with their neighbors and their government -- sometimes better than anyone expects.

Making democracy work in cleaning up the Ravenna Arsenal or reining in an administration determined to "create their own reality" is going to require demanding our places at the table, taking risks, learning to trust one another, negotiating trade-offs, making sacrifices. There is no free lunch.

But we don't have to be on the menu.

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