Documentary Film Nerve Covers Environmental Activist Craig Williams’ Historic Fight for the Responsible Disposal of Chemical Weapons

Posted by Daniel Salazar, February 6, 2018

By Daniel Salazar

We sat down for an interview with environmental activist Craig Williams, the subject of documentary film Nerve, a Cinema Verde official selection. During the interview, Williams discusses how he got involved with activism, his current efforts, and his historic fight against the incineration of chemical weapons. 

Upon his return from military service during the Vietnam War, Craig Williams soon found himself in a new and very different battle against the United States Department of Defense. Following the war, the Department of Defense had planned to incinerate 500 tons of nerve gas and other chemical agents stored in his small Kentucky hometown. “It became a cause that I was passionate about,” Williams explained, and ultimately what drove him into a 30-year-long career in social and environmental activism.

Nerve, a Cinema Verde official selection and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale University, is about Williams’ fight for the responsible disposal of chemical weapons. In 1985, Williams founded the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, a grassroots organization that grew into a nationwide coalition that was able to convince the Pentagon to halt their incineration plans.

“We wound up prevailing in a number of venues, not all of them, but many of them,” Williams said. Since then, Williams has received numerous awards for his activism, including the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006. Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization he co-founded and is currently the secretary of, was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

Craig Williams, along with current executive director of KEF Heather Warman, will be attending the screening of Nerve at Cinema Verde’s 9th annual film festival this Sunday, February 11th. Nerve director Ben Evans will also address the audience through a Skype call. In anticipation of the festival, we got the chance to interview him about his history of activism, the film, and the future of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. You can read a lightly edited transcript of the interview below.

‘We built upon each individual success’

To start off, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was originally from New York–Long Island. I went to high school in Long Island and went to college in Ocala, Florida.

Oh, right next door.

Yeah. I wound up graduating from Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. Prior to that, I was in the military. I was in the army for close to two years. I did approximately a year in Vietnam, and came back and worked for the public defender’s office here in the state of Kentucky as a criminal investigator for a couple of years. I went to law school for a year, got divorced after my first year of law school. I had two kids, so I never finished law school.

I opened up a small business, and then subsequently got into environmental work, primarily triggered by the chemical weapons disposal issue here in the region. And since 1969, I’ve been in the activist, advocacy arena either in disarmament, anti-war, environmental, social justice issues, and still remain engaged in those issues today.

Thank you.

That was 70 years in two and a half minutes.

Obviously, you were driven to activism because of the chemical weapons disposal program, but could you talk more specifically about what personally motivated you to start the Kentucky Environmental Foundation?

It was the belief that the proposed disposal technology that the army was bringing forward was not protective of the workforce that would have been operating it, nor was it protective of the surrounding community and environment due to the research that we did in incineration in general. As we developed more information on the chemical weapons incineration history, we were convinced that an open-ended technology such as that was not appropriate for this area or any place, frankly. So it became a cause that I felt passionate about and continued to engage in in organized ways up until we actually prevailed in our position. And now I continue to be engaged in a way that makes sure that the community is involved in the decisions associated with that effort to dispose of these weapons of mass destruction that are stored up the road from here.

‘[Nerve] was generated to be a film that demonstrated the need for solutions to problems, and not just opposition to problems’

How did this grassroots organization that you started grow into a national movement?

Well, we built upon each incremental success and each incremental effort that we had accomplished. We began with small-time organization and small local government endorsements and built our way up to the state-level here in Kentucky. Eventually, we recognized that people in other communities were facing similar situations. We reached out to those communities and found that, indeed, there were people that were concerned over the same issues we were. We joined together with communities across the country and national and international organizations that were focused on disarmament and environmental and public health protection.

From there, KEF just kind of morphed into a national and international organization that was focused on solutions to what we saw as a significant environmental and public health program. Eventually, we wound up prevailing in a number of venues, not all of them, but many of them, and assisted our colleagues internationally in trying to make sure that they were adequately protected while we got rid of these weapons under the international treaty.

Now I just wanted to talk about the film. How did Nerve come about, and why was it made?

It was the 25th anniversary of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, and the then and current executive director Heather Warman thought it would be a good idea to make a film about the 25 years of our activities, how it unfolded, what we were planning on doing in the future, and so on. She connected with a couple of different filmmakers, and the one that rose above the rest as far as their background and professionalism was Ben Evans, who did the film.

From there, it was a just a question of me doing what I was asked to do, which was to provide historical footage and context and entirely too many interviews of myself, in my opinion. Obviously, in the film business, you shoot lots and lots of hours of footage and then edit it down to the timeframe that you want to present. In my own opinion, I was in it way too much, but I was overruled by the director of the film and the director of the organization.

It was primarily generated to be a film that demonstrated the need for solutions to problems, and not just opposition to problems. We tried to capture that in the film. Everybody is against something, but not very many people can find solutions to the problems. It was meant to be kind of an inspirational film to show that if people work together even with their perceived enemies, oftentimes solutions can be generated that are to everybody’s satisfaction.

‘It’s about doing things on the right side of the scale’

What are you doing now? What is your focus and what is the Kentucky Environmental Foundation’s focus as you look to the future?

In addition to continuing to monitor and engage with chemical weapons disposal projects here in Kentucky and in Colorado, we’re currently working on a number of different issues. One is a proposed repurposing of a natural gas pipeline to run natural gas liquids from the fracking fields in Pennsylvania down to the Gulf Coast–in a 70-year-old pipeline, which we find to be a preposterous proposal.

We’re also working on radioactive fracking waste dumping in municipal landfills in the region. That is illegal and poses an environmental and public health problem for people. We’re working on a national campaign to end the military practice of open burning and open detonating of conventional weapons and waste, which goes on in military bases all around the country.

We’re working on an environmental curriculum for high schools in the region in order to continue education at the high-school level that teaches students about environmental issues and getting engaged in them.

You’re a very accomplished person. You have been awarded a number of awards for your activism and advocacy over the years. So I’m curious: how do you feel as you look back on your activism and the last decades of your life?

Well, I spend more time looking forward than I do looking back. With any kind of activism or advocacy, it’s nice to get recognized occasionally and be shown appreciation for what you’ve done. That’s all well and good, and I do appreciate those kinds of recognitions dearly.

But there’s plenty more to be done. We try to recognize folks around here when they do something that’s worthwhile. It’s not a question of how much you do. It’s a question of doing things on the right side of the scale. And so if people are doing recycling projects or cleaning up their neighborhoods or writing to their elected officials about an environmental issue, we applaud those things.

So I don’t sit on my lawn and think, “Wow, I’ve won all these awards. Boy, that’s great.” The issues that I enumerated to you a short time ago are what I’m focused on–looking ahead. I’m semi-retired now so I’m only working maybe 50 hours a week instead of 80. So you know, I think it’s nice, and I appreciate the accolades, but I don’t dwell on them a whole lot.

Nerve will be screened at 2:43 pm on Sunday, February 11th, at Cinema Verde’s 9th annual film festival. You can purchase tickets for Cinema Verde here.

Recent Headlines