Grist  [Printer-friendly version]
April 27, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky-
based Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), has been awarded the
prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for 2006. Craig organized
this amazing citizens' group 15 years ago and has guided it ever
since, sometimes licking envelopes and sometimes dreaming up creative
national strategies. Operating on a shoestring, CWWG has had
astonishing success changing the behavior of the world's largest
bureaucracy, the Pentagon. Way to go, CWWG, and congratulations,

By Michelle Nijhuis

"We're a little outnumbered, and a little outspent," says Craig
Williams, "but we've turned around decisions by the biggest
bureaucracy on the planet." Williams, founder of the nonprofit
Chemical Weapons Working Group and a cabinetmaker by trade, has been
fighting for more than two decades to ensure that the U.S. military
disposes of chemical weapons safely.

In 1985, when Williams found out that the Department of Defense
planned to incinerate weapons at an Army depot just eight miles from
his Kentucky home, the Vietnam veteran took action, joining forces
with citizens living near other proposed weapons incinerators. Nearly
a decade of steady lobbying and petitioning convinced Congress to
delay funding for some of the incinerators, and order a study of
alternative weapons-disposal methods.

Since then, thanks to persistent watchdogging by CWWG, the Army has
adopted safer disposal methods at several sites, including the Blue
Grass Army Depot near Williams' home. His group continues to push for
environmental compliance, workers' rights, and public accountability
at incinerators and other weapons-disposal sites around the country.

Williams, 58, was awarded one of six 2006 Goldman Environmental Prizes
on April 24. He spoke to Grist from San Francisco.

Question: Tell me how you began your campaign against chemical-
weapons incineration. What made you decide to act?

Answer: I went to a public meeting where the Army announced that we
had weapons of mass destruction in our community, and that their
proposal was to burn them in the middle of our community. They said
that anyone who had any Question: s should raise their hand. And I've
still got my hand up.

On the way home from that meeting, my wife looked at me and said,
"Craig, someone's got to do something about this," and -- since I
always do what I'm told by my wife -- 20-some-odd years later, here we

Question: How did you encourage others to join you?

Answer: There was a lot of interest in our community about this
proposal, and subsequently there were a number of scoping meetings --
public meetings required by the National Environmental Policy Act --
and it became apparent to us that the Army was just going through the
motions, and weren't really interested in what anyone had to say. And
there were literally thousands of people who showed up to these
meetings in Kentucky, which is unusual because it's a fairly
conservative state -- it's relatively patriotic and so on.

But we began to realize that we could have everyone in Kentucky turn
out to oppose this thing, and we were probably still going to get run
over by the juggernaut of the Pentagon. So we began to reach out to
other communities, places that we assumed had some folks in them who
shared our concerns. We felt it would be advantageous to all these
communities to work together, to share strategies as to how to turn
this thing around. So that's how we formed this coalition.

Question: As a veteran, what did it mean to you to Question:
military authority?

Answer: Well, frankly, it wasn't a new concept to me. I had a rather
jaded military career -- I was never demoted or court-martialed or
anything, but I've never shied away from confronting authority if I
thought something was wrong. I don't automatically grant that someone
has the right Answer: s just because they're in charge of something.
So it didn't bother me at all that they were the Army. I just knew
that the principle of what they were proposing was dangerous for my
family and for my community, and that basic guiding principle has
motivated me all these years.

Question: What are the most effective strategies your group has used?

Answer: It's been the focus on solutions, rather than just opposition.
If you go into a situation and take out the light bulb, you're much
more effective if you replace it with another one, rather than leaving
everyone in the dark screaming at each other. I'm not a scientist or a
chemist or an engineer, but we recruited people with expertise and
worked with them to generate viable solutions to what was being
proposed. Over the course of time, we convinced people in power -- in
the legislative process, and in the military itself -- that these were
safer solutions.

The second element in our success, I think, is that we never say
something unless we can prove it. That's the No. 1 rule in our office.
It may sound nice and sexy, or emotionally correct, and it may advance
your agenda, but if you can't back it up, don't say it. Credibility in
the activist world is a very, very precious commodity. It's
fascinating how the military can get up on a Tuesday and lie, get
caught on Wednesday and apologize, then get up on Thursday and be
believed. The activist community doesn't have that privilege. We have
to be right all the time -- if we're not, we get crucified by every PR
firm the Army can hire.

Question: What do you consider your greatest victories so far?

Answer: Well, my wife's still with me after 20-some years of this, so
that's pretty significant. Clearly, we're proud to have turned around
Pentagon decisions. I mean, we have four people who work on this full-
time -- four people who are paid -- and the Pentagon has a few more
than that. We have a budget of under $200,000 a year, while their
program for this project is now pegged at around $40 billion.

Question: If you hadn't stuck your hand up at that meeting years ago,
what do you think your neighborhood would be like today?

Answer: I think we'd be in the shape of communities where these
incinerators are operating. Even though the Army likes to pretend that
everything's rosy, the bottom line is that these facilities emit toxic
materials into the environment on a chronic basis, even when they're
operated as designed. Often there are small quantities -- or more --
of actual chemical warfare agent that come out of the smokestacks of
these facilities and drift into these communities. Low-level, chronic
exposure to these things is known to create neurological problems, and
the other emissions -- of which there is quite a lengthy list --
include some of the most hazardous stuff known. In our community we're
using a controlled, low-temperature approach, which allows you to
control the waste stream that includes these very lethal materials. So
we're clearly in a safer and more protected position.

Question: What does this prize mean to you?

Answer: Well, there's nothing wrong with being validated. Honestly,
what it means to me, more than anything else, is that it raises our
visibility on this issue, and provides an even greater level of
credibility for us.

Question: What do you plan to do with the money?

Answer: I'm going to give it to my wife, what do you think? Actually,
I'm going to give some of it back to the foundation, and some to my
staff, who have been extraordinary. There have been times when we
couldn't raise money, and we had to lay everyone off, including
myself, and everyone still showed up and worked a 10-hour day. So
we're going to use it to continue our efforts, and to compensate
people who have worked very hard.

- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo., and the
winner of the 2006 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science

Chemical Weapons Working Group
128 Main St. Berea KY 40403
859-986-7565 859-986-2695 (F)