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Activist Who Sought Safe Disposal of Chemical Weapons Wins Goldman Prize

  • Alan Lytle

An American activist who led a grassroots movement to ensure the safe disposal of weapons of mass destruction in the United States and around the world, has been awarded the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

"I'm kind of a cantankerous sort of fella," says Craig Williams, by his own admission the very definition of an activist. "If I see an injustice, I don't just walk by. There's a principle of fairness, and justice, and equity as human beings, that people need to stand up and protect…and I believe in that."

Like many of his generation, the New York-born father of four fought for his country in the Vietnam War. It was during this time that Williams says he learned it was okay to question authority.

"The Vietnam experience taught me just because those in authority stake out a position, doesn't necessarily mean that it's correct, and it doesn't necessarily give them a free ride or free pass. Part of our democratic principles is involvement by the citizenry… not only at the voting booth, but in all aspects of our lives."

After his return from Southeast Asia, Williams became prominent in the anti-war movement. He was a charter member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and campaigned for veterans' rights. But in the mid-1970's, Williams opted out of national politics, and settled in the tranquil surroundings of rural Kentucky to ply his trade as a cabinetmaker.

But Williams says he eventually found another political cause to fight for, when he learned that the U.S. Defense Department planned to incinerate stockpiles of chemical weapons at numerous sites across the country, including one located in Richmond, Kentucky, just 15 kilometers from his home.

Like most of his neighbors, Williams was eager to see the chemical arsenal destroyed, but he wasn't convinced that incineration was the safest way to do it.

Williams says that after organizing a local opposition group, he joined forces with similar communities across the U.S., and later, around the world. "We formed a coalition called the Chemical Weapons Working Group that included citizens' groups and concerned individuals from these communities."

Williams says he knew that in order to communicate effectively with the Pentagon, the Chemical Weapons Working Group would need to establish, first, its scientific credibility. "We didn't just say we were against incineration because it emits toxic material, because it has an avenue for agents to escape, and so on and so forth," he explains. "That was our posture, but we collaborated with an international scientific community to identify alternatives to what we were against."

And Williams says the group also knew that in order to have influence on matters of national defense, it would need powerful allies in the U.S. Congress. Enter Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who says he and the Working Group made a good team. "As a senior member of the appropriations committee which funds government operations, I've been able to rely on Craig's timely information to fashion legislative fixes to get problems with that chemical weapons disposal process solved."

Williams says the support of Senator McConnell and other lawmakers resulted in what Craig Williams sees as a vindication of the Working Group's campaign. "Ultimately Congress directed the Army to go out and demonstrate some of these alternatives that we had identified," he says. "And upon completion of those demonstrations, much to the Army's chagrin, and not to our surprise, they worked fine."

After a Congressional investigation, the U.S. Army eventually announced it would employ a safer water-based process to destroy its chemical arsenals at six sites, including the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Williams and his fellow activists have kept a close watch on the Pentagon's weapons destruction program, and have continued to work with Congress to ensure that the safe-disposal projects are properly funded.

Later this fall, Williams and his neighbors will witness the groundbreaking of a new chemical-neutralization facility. But that's not the end of the effort. "We've got another ten years here in Kentucky before this stuff is gone," he points out, "and even though the technology decision has been made, and we're better off than where we would have been, there's still the components of engagement, and vigilance, and attention that need to be done during the construction and operation of this facility down here to get rid of this stuff safely."

Craig Williams' efforts to promote the safe destruction of the world's chemical weapons are likely to get a big boost from the $750,000 award he and the Chemical Weapons Working Group have just won (4/24), as the North American recipients of the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize. The privately-funded award is bestowed annually to activists from the world's six continental regions to honor their work protecting the environment.

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