James R. Carroll / The Courier-Journal – 2006-04-25 08:26:49
Weapons Watchdog Gets Results:
Environmental Prize Honors Activist for Army Depot Work
WASHINGTON (April 24, 2006) — Billy Piper had had enough. His calls to an official at the White House’s National Security Council weren’t being returned. He wanted to talk about the chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., and an international treaty setting a deadline for their destruction.
So Piper, an aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, got on the phone and explained his trouble to Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Berea, Ky.
“Hang on!” Williams growled to Piper.
In moments, Piper’s phone rang. The elusive NSC official was at the other end. “That’s classic Craig Williams,” said Piper, laughing as he recalled the moment recently. Piper now is chief of staff to McConnell, Kentucky’s senior Republican senator.
“Well, we’re here to serve,” Williams said, chuckling when reminded of Piper’s call, during the Clinton administration. Williams, who has done many similar things over the years, will be honored today with an award for grass-roots environmentalism.
In 2001, Williams testified before Congress about internal Pentagon documents he had obtained that showed the military wasn’t accurate about costs and schedules for chemical-weapons destruction. The Congressional Research Service later backed him up.
For more than two decades, Williams has used that kind of credibility to build relationships with staffers and officials in the White House, members of Congress and their aides, civilians and soldiers in the Pentagon, contractors, consultants and federal regulators.
Combining his network with an acute political sensibility and an encyclopedic knowledge of chemical weapons, Williams has been the driving force behind big changes at Blue Grass.
Goldman Prize Winner
Today, Williams, 58, is scheduled to receive one of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prizes, the world’s most generous monetary prize for grass-roots environmentalists.
Williams said a community meeting with Defense Department officials in 1984 launched his advocacy for the safe destruction of chemical weapons at Blue Grass, across the nation and around the world.
“I remember telling the powers that be that their approach to this thing, of waltzing in here and telling people what they’re going to do, that has the potential to impact all of these people in this audience and my family — without engaging the community in the decision-making process — is not going to work,” he said.
Williams said he is going to give some of his $125,000 prize money to the Chemical Weapons Working Group and some to the staff, and “to pay back people who 20 years ago gave me grocery money.”
It took years for his group to force a Pentagon study of alternatives to burning the weapons. And that led in 1996 to a safer process called neutralization for Blue Grass and a similar site in Pueblo, Colo.
And Williams tries to keep the work on track: It was he who first learned early last year that the Pentagon intended to delay getting rid of the weapons stockpiles at Blue Grass and Pueblo. That prompted McConnell and other lawmakers to persuade the military to back down.
A Winning Combination
Lani Alo, program director for the Goldman Environmental Prize, said by phone from San Francisco that the jury found Williams unique because he focused on “an issue that millions of Americans knew nothing about before his work.”
“We look at Craig as someone who has the heart and character of a grass-roots leader,” Alo said.
Residents who live near Blue Grass also praise Williams.
“It is one of the greatest David-and-Goliath fights I’ve ever seen,” said author Charles Bracelen Flood, 76, of Richmond. McConnell, who has worked with Williams since arriving in the Senate in 1985, said Williams is tenacious.
“Craig has been sort of single-mindedly working on this for a lengthy period of time, and I think his determination has been a very, very important part of helping us know what’s happening there and how the community feels about it,” he said. “He’s got whistleblowers everywhere.”
Mike Parker, director of the U.S. Army Chemical Material Agency and program manager for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, based in Aberdeen, Md., said he was initially wary of Williams.
“His reputation inside the (Defense Department) was, he was one of the wild men of the activist community who did not necessarily honestly portray all sides, he was selective in how he applied facts, he used political influence and any method and any means he could to advance his cause and stop incineration,” Parker said.
But Parker said he and Williams have developed a good relationship.
Another fan is Rep. Ben Chandler, D-6th District, where the depot is located.
“Craig knows more than I think the Department of Defense knows about what they’re doing themselves,” Chandler said.
Labor of love
Born in New York, Williams was a soldier in Vietnam, helped organize the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was a criminal investigator for the public defender’s office in Kentucky, and owned a cabinetry business.
In 1990, groups opposing weapons incineration formed the Chemical Weapons Working Group. Its logical head was Williams, the father of four children and grandfather of four.
At first, Williams worked out of his house, living on wife Teri’s income and small donations. Today, the group’s $195,000 annual budget, including Williams’ salary of less than $40,000, is supported by grants from foundations. According to the group’s 2004 tax return, it received $1.1 million in gifts, grants and contributions from 2000 through 2003.
Williams and three other paid staff members work out of a second-floor office space above shops in Berea’s College Square.
Despite praise for his political skills, running for office “is not my bag,” Williams said.
“I’ll probably take up a cause of something I perceive to be of shorter duration,” he said.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.