Activist Warned City Not to Trash its Finances

One reason Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy is that nobody ever listens to the dead.

Charles Chivis used to wear a sign that read "I'm dying of cancer and I know it." And, "We're killing our children with dioxin."

He also raised basic financial questions about the city's plan to retool its ill-fated garbage incinerator, such as: "Do the revenue numbers still work?"

Chivis died April 4, 2004. And Harrisburg carried on with the enormous folly that Chivis tried to stop.See if this story reminds you of anything else in America:

In 1972, the capital city of Pennsylvania decided to burn garbage to generate steam and, later, electricity. This public-works project soon became a classic money pit, plagued with everything from cost overruns and dodgy contractors to leaky pipes. Government officials, however, being government officials, were always able to paper over the problems and move on.

The trash-burning plant not only generated some of the highest-ever trash-disposal bills for its customers, but also generated dioxins and an 80-foot waste pile known as "Mount Ashmore."The winds blew the ash and the carcinogens into neighborhoods where the poor and minorities lived, even dusting the clothes they'd set out to dry on their backyard lines. When they complained, well, who cared? They were poor--and dusty.

Pressure from federal environmental regulators finally led to a plant shutdown in 2000. But the city of about 50,000 people was determined to toss out more paper.

Harrisburg ultimately went more than $300 million into debt to retool the garbage plant. And when the plant resumed burning more money than trash, the city suffered a ratings-agency downgrade, which made it more expensive to finance its other operations.

This tragic confluence of events may take a long time for some folks in Harrisburg to understand. Orange County, Calif., for example, filed bankruptcy in 1994 because of its investment in another form of garbage called derivatives. And to this day, there are still people in Orange County trying to figure out what a derivative is.

I'd bet Chivis didn't know about derivatives, but he was smart enough to know what he didn't know. His obituary noted that he served in the Korean War, was a local president of the NAACP and spent his life toiling for numerous community organizations. I also noticed he once won a civic award for being a "voice for the voiceless."

Clearly, I couldn't resurrect Chivis, but it was easy enough to find his words on archived Internet pages.

"The ill-conceived idea that burning was the answer to the city's waste problem was at best a bad idea," he said in 2003 before an environmental hearing board. "It was never a financial success and never will be."

Chivis was hardly alone in making this gloomy financial prediction. There was also a group calling itself the Coalition Against The Incinerator. The group no longer exists, but its website has been archived.

In 2003, it blamed the city's longtime former mayor: "He has been like the consumer who trades one credit card for another--charging more and more...until one day there is no money to pay the debt."

Sound familiar?

If there is a moral to this story, it's that a garbage burner always needs more garbage. Anything that reduces the efficient flow of garbage is a threat to the enterprise, so garbage must keep coming at all costs, and who are the poor to complain about it, anyway?

"Recycling must become a part of our daily lives if we are to save this earth for our children," Chivis warned. "God knows we have had about as much of the ash...and dioxins that we can handle."

Harrisburg also has had about all of the debt it can handle. On Monday, a federal judge postponed a hearing on the city's unusual Chapter 9 petition for one month. If people in Harrisburg thought their home prices were already low, wait until they see what happens in a bankrupt city.

"My last prayer," Chivis said, "is that God with the eyesight of an angry eagle looks down on those of you responsible for putting this carnage on his children and sends you straight to hell."

May God rest your soul, Mr. Chivis. The eagle has landed.

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at or