A Different Kind of Fire

 When Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner opposed the incinerator industry, someone incinerated her home

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), July 22, 1994

There will be many questions asked this week, when the Second Citizens’ Conference on Dioxin convenes at Saint Louis University on Thursday.

The inquiring ranks at the four-day gathering will be comprised of more than 100 scientists, environmental activists, former Times Beach residents and Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Big names like Retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Barry Commoner, the former Washington University ecologist, are among the scheduled speakers.

Fewer people outside of the environmental movement may have heard of Pat Costner, but the 54-year-old chemist will also address the conference. Costner is the research director of Greenpeace’s U.S. Toxics Campaign. For the past eight years, she has been providing the technical answers that have stoked the environmental group’s fiery opposition to dioxin-generating incinerators.

The point at which science, politics and business intersect can be a volatile one. Costner, who lives near Eureka Springs,Ark., knows as much. She also knows there is no pat answer or formula that will reveal who torched her house on March 2, 1991.

“The night my house burned down, I went to town to visit a friend,” recalls Costner. “I came home and it was gone. It was burned totally to the ground. I can’t tell you how you feel at a time like that. I sat out here by myself, for I don’t know how long.”

The Arkansas Gazette reported that Costner’s “house was valued at $25,000, but only her computer equipment and office materials were insured.” But that’s not all that turned to ash.

“I probably had one of the larger technical libraries in the environmental movement,” Costner says. The irreplaceable books and technical papers took 30 years to accumulate and minutes to destroy. Costner’s will to employ her expertise remains un-singed. Her knowledge is based on years of experience within the industry she now opposes. Earlier in her career, the scientist worked for both Shell Oil and Arapaho Chemicals, a subsidiary of Syntex.

At the time of the blaze, Costner planned to publish a book based on five years of research into toxic waste incineration. Ironically, she had entitled her work Playing with Fire.

“We had arson investigators who said that my office burned at temperatures that were five or six times hotter than a normal house fire. They sent samples of the ash off to have it analyzed and found traces of an accelerant,” says Costner.

The evidence strongly suggests that her office and library were the targets of the arsonists. “It was a professional hit. It was not just somebody who wandered by with matches, says Sheila O’Donnell, a private investigator hired by Greenpeace.

The alleged attack against Costner is one of many acts of violence that may have been perpetrated against environmentalists in recent years. “I know that some of these attacks have been very well orchestrated,” says O’Donnell. The Center for Investigative Reporting has counted 124 credible cases in 31 states since 1988. Among them is the 1989 car bombing of Earth First! activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari in Oakland, Calif.

Costner estimates her efforts were instrumental in shutting down at least six hazardous waste incinerators in the year or so before her house burned. In most, if not all, of these cases, the Greenpeace scientist says she engaged in debates with incinerator proponents and government officials. In 1989, for example,Costner’s testimony helped block a multi million-dollar incinerator slated for the Kaw Indian reservation in Oklahoma. WasteTech, the proposed builder of the project, is a subsidiary of Amoco Oil, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Despite the personal set back, Costner has continued to fight the Vertac incinerator, an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup. The dioxin-contaminated waste at the Jacksonville, Ark. site was left over from the manufacture of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The struggle by Costner and others to halt the burning of the waste has been supported by three decisions handed down by U.S. District Judge Stephen Reasoner. In each instance, however, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis has overturned his rulings.

Although the arson case remains unsolved, O’Donnell’s investigation uncovered some interesting leads. “We located witnesses who said there had been three different incidences of thugs coming to town looking for Pat,” says O’Donnell. About six weeks before the fire, Costner says a local woman had warned that a man had inquired about her whereabouts. Two weeks later, customers at a Eureka Springs restaurant reportedly overheard Costner’s name come up in a conversation between two men. One of the strangers allegedly bragged of being trained at Quantico,Va., which is both the headquarters of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and the FBI training center.

After the fire, Costner immediately pulled in a house trailer and set about having her home rebuilt. She makes no secret of where she lives. From St. Louis, head down I-44 to Springfield and veer onto U.S. 65. Keep driving past Branson. Past Andy William’s Pepsodent smile, past the other giant billboard images of Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton and Mel Till-ill-is. Then head southwest across the Arkansas line,where straightaways are memories and the oak and hickory roots run deep under the roadbed. Outside of Eureka Springs, turn off Route 23, the faint gray line on the road map, and go down a dirt road a piece.

“I have 135 acres and I live plunk out in the middle of it.

“This is my home,” says Costner, as a rooster crows in the background. “I’ve lived here for 20 years. My children grew up here.”

She ain’t leavin’.

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