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Craig Williams honored with portrait for his decades long battle to prevent incineration of chemical weapons

By Guest Columnist Andy McDonald

Environmental advocate and community leader Craig Williams was honored Thursday with the unveiling of a portrait, part of a series entitled “Americans Who Tell the Truth.”

The painting was the work of Robert Shetterly, who revealed his latest effort at the Berea College Hutchins Library.  

Shetterly said he conducted a lot of research on Williams and his work in preventing the incineration of some 523 tons chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot, as well as nerve agents at eight other chemical weapons storage sites in the United States.

After the United States Army initially announced their intent to either relocate or incinerate the deadly chemical weapons in 1984, Williams, along with other Berea and Madison County citizens, spearheaded an effort to raise public awareness, building what became an international coalition and lobbying Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense to find an alternate solution to weapons incineration.

“This will be a story that I will be telling now – about courage, about perseverance,” Shetterly said of Williams before unveiling the portrait. “It’s not everyday that someone stands up against the Pentagon and achieves something.”

After revealing painting, Shetterly asked Williams to read the words etched near the top of the portrait, which quoted his testimony to army officials.  

“With a six-billion budget against our four- or five-hundred-dollar expense account, we realize you, the Pentagon, can hire more lawyers, get more studies, and pay more experts. But what you can’t get is thousands of Kentuckians to support your plan. That is the one thing that we’ve got that you can’t get. The peoples’ will prevail and we will stop this incinerator.” 

That statement and his decades-long efforts are highlighted in the 2015 film Nerve, by Ben Evans.

What began as community outreach in central Kentucky spread to the other U.S. cities that housed chemical weapons storage facilities, and even to the Soviet Union, which ultimately discontinued chemical weapons incineration after Russian citizens, with support from Williams and other local environmental advocates, took a stand against the procedure.

The final nerve agent stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot was destroyed last year through a method of chemical neutralization, selected because it drastically reduces the potential impact on the environment and surrounding communities. For his efforts, Williams was honored with the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded to one person per continent annually.

Williams now stands among more than 260 honorees portrayed in the Americans Who Tell the Truth series, which are exhibited in university libraries, schools, as well as in other venues in 38 states. Several of the portraits are currently on display in the Hutchins Library.

Following the unveiling, Williams credited many others who helped make the honor possible.  “There are no words to express, after 40 years of doing this, how embarrassing it still is to get these sorts of recognitions. I’ve gotten many, and each time I share the exposure and the gratitude with all of the people that made this happen,” Williams said. Among others, Williams thanked Kentucky Environmental Foundation founder Peter Hille, Pamela Corley for initiating his recognition in the series, as well as the late Doug Hindman, whom he cited as a friend and mentor. Williams also expressed gratitude for the support of his family, many of whom were present at Thursday’s ceremony, including his wife, Teri, his father-in-law, his daughter, as well as his grandson and granddaughter.

“They’ve given me the support that I’ve needed to pursue this for my own conscience and for everyone’s well-being,” Williams said.

Williams’ latest public advocacy effort is to try to convince the military to stop detonating ammunition outdoors, citing serious public health questions. He expressed hope that citizens will make their voices heard about proposals to build two bourbon distilleries in Madison County, and about the proposed power line construction in Red Lick.

“As we’ve done before, I would ask all of you who are interested in preserving what we’ve got to take some time, and learn about these issues that are going on now. You don’t have to do a lot. You can just be aware of it. Write your magistrate. Write the county judge. Write the people who want to do this. There’s always more to do,” Williams said.

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley, who said Williams’ legacy will impact the community and beyond for years to come.

“I think the overall legacy that Craig will leave for the community is the example that individuals can and should make a difference in policy, in the safety of their community, and in the future of their community,” Fraley said. “Madison County and Berea are safer today because of his efforts, and public safety and environmental health will also be a part of his legacy.”

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