Moving nerve gas waste is criticized

Army planning to dispose of Indiana VX stockpiles, possibly using Md. route

February 02, 2004|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Sometime this summer, tanker trucks filled with a caustic chemical soup of leftovers from a lethal chemical warfare agent will begin rolling through the Mid-Atlantic region on a 900-mile journey from an Army storage depot in Indiana to a treatment plant in Deepwater, N.J.

At least two 4,000-gallon tankers loaded with breakdown products from the nerve agent VX - a slurry of lye, water and the weapon's original man-made ingredients - will leave the Newport Chemical Depot every day, seven days a week for more than a year under a new Army disposal plan.

The tankers will travel by yet-to-be-determined routes to a DuPont chemical waste treatment plant just north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, according to a DuPont spokesman. There, the slurry would go through a multistage treatment process before the last remaining wastes are discharged into the Delaware River.

This is the Army's second attempt to get rid of Newport's VX. A similar proposal alarmed officials in Ohio, where intense local opposition scotched plans to dispose of the material in Dayton. In New Jersey and neighboring Delaware, environmental groups and members of Congress are peppering the Army with questions and concerns.

"We want to see the stockpile of VX destroyed," said John M. Kearney, director of Delaware's Clean Air Council, "but safety should be the top priority. There's risks in transport, storage and handling all the way along the path, and we feel the risks outweigh the benefits."

The VX dispute is the latest example of the problems that arise when the Army tries to get rid of some of the world's most dangerous weapons. International law requires the United States to destroy its chemical stockpiles, stored at seven sites nationwide, including Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The government sped up plans to destroy the weapons after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fearing they would become terrorist targets. Now the Army must quickly make a complex set of calculations involving experimental chemistry, the odds of an accident - and eventually local politics.

The Army originally planned to truck the VX wastes, known as VX hydrolysate or VXH, to a treatment plant near Dayton, about 220 miles east of Newport. But it withdrew the proposal in October amid concern about the risks of an accidental spill and fears that toxic residues would foul local waterways.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency questioned the project and an independent expert criticized it. A community group sued to block the plan, and 25 local governments cast protest votes against it.

"It was the biggest thing going on here for months," said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.

Spokesmen for the Army and for DuPont say there's no need for concern.

"This is our business," said Anthony Farina of DuPont's Secure Environmental Treatment plant at Deepwater, which will ship and dispose of the VXH under contract to the Army. The company is testing small amounts of the slurry to ensure its proposed treatment will work. The shipments won't go forward unless it does, he said.

"We would not accept any waste stream unless we could treat it safely, and with no harmful effects to our workers, our community and the environment," Farina said. "We'll know more about this in the next month or so."

An Army spokesman noted that before the chemical is loaded onto tankers, preliminary treatment in Newport will reduce levels of deadly VX to less than 20 parts per billion - the point where the nerve agent is undetectable.

"There's no VX in it," said Jeff Lindblad, a spokesman for the Army's Chemical Materials Agency, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "What you're ending up with is caustic wastewater."

Lindblad said the wastewater is similar to household drain cleaner - and no more dangerous than hundreds of other chemicals that travel America's roads every day.

But Bruce E. Rittmann, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, came to a different conclusion when he studied the Army's plans last year as a consultant to Montgomery County, Ohio. "I don't think this is just household drain cleaner," he said. "It's considerably riskier than that."

VX itself is an odorless, oily liquid that attacks the nervous system through the skin, eyes or lungs, causing death in minutes. It was manufactured at Newport in the 1950s and 1960s, and about 1,200 tons of it were left there in 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon halted the U.S. chemical weapons program.

In Newport, VX is stored in 1-ton steel casks that look like beer kegs, according to visitors. The Army plans to empty the casks into giant sealed mixers, then add hot lye and water to break the chemical bonds that lock the ingredients into a deadly form. The resulting slurry has a strong skunk-like odor, Lindblad said.

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