“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.

Craig Williams.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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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.

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

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

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 questions 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 are.

How did you encourage others to join you?

Goldman Prizewinners
Meet the winners of the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize:
Yu Xiaogang of China
Olya Melen of Ukraine
Anne Kajir of Papua New Guinea
Craig Williams of the United States

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.

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

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 answers 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.

What are the most effective strategies your group has used?

Fighting the good fight on a new battlefront.

Photo: Sandra Plantt.

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.

What do you consider your greatest victories so far?

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.

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

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.

What does this prize mean to you?

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.

What do you plan to do with the money?

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.