Controversy surrounds where and how the Army should get rid of its chemical weapons. Host Pippin Ross talks with reporter Aileen LeBlanc about the Army Depot in Newport, Indiana. The Army plan to truck neutralizing nerve agent through Dayton, Ohio has angered some residents there.
ROSS: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Pippin Ross, sitting in for Steve Curwood. There are eight military sites around the country that have stockpiles of chemical weapons, including such items as blister and VX nerve agents. Six years ago, Congress ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The treaty set a deadline for the Army's longstanding plans to eliminate these weapons. The countries that signed the international agreement must destroy them by 2007.
But now, concerns about stateside terrorism have added new urgency to the destruction schedule. Almost everyone agrees it's a good idea to eliminate these weapons, but where and how these chemicals will be destroyed is contentious.
Reporter Aileen LeBlanc has been following the story of the chemical depot in Newport, Indiana where VX nerve agent was stored. Aileen, what is VX nerve agent?
LEBLANC: Well, VX nerve agent is a liquid, it's not a gas. And it was designed to contaminate battlefields and to kill people, but it was never used. The VX that was made here was manufactured in Newport, Indiana in the 1960s and much of it is still stored there today. VX is lethal, it's deadly. One drop of it on your skin, about 10 milligrams, can cause death within about 10 minutes.
ROSS: So what was the original plan on how to get rid of all this stuff?
LEBLANC: At the Newport Chemical Depot, incineration of VX was the plan. But because local citizens were upset about potential emissions, they launched a major protest and the Army was forced to consider neutralization. And in neutralization, the VX is mixed with water and sodium hydroxide, and this process destroys the VX and it produces a byproduct called hydrolysate, which is still nasty but by no means VX.
Then, in step two, the hydrolysate was to be further treated, all on site at Newport, by a process called SCWO, or super-critical water oxidation, which would break down the organics.
ROSS: And then September 11th happened.
LEBLANC: September the 11th happened and a national emergency was declared by President Bush. The Army, they were seeing the chemical weapons depots as possible terrorist targets, and so they decided to speed up the process by abandoning the SCWO, and instead shipping the hydrolysate for step two offsite for bio-treatment.
I talked with Dr. Scott Heraburda. He's the assistant project manager for the Newport Chemical Depot. And I asked him about the change of plans.
HERABURDA: Basically, the decision that was overriding it was really schedule. If we want to do everything on site here, basically slow down our timetable by two years, meaning we would still have those weapons available for terrorist activities or terrorist targets for an additional two years, which we thought was more of a threat to the public.
LEBLANC: So they planned to ship the byproduct 200 miles away to a company here called Perma Fix of Dayton, because they already had a bio-reactor up and running that could treat it.
ROSS: Aileen, can you explain this bio-treatment process?
LEBLANC: Well the hydrolysate that will come into Dayton, it's very caustic. It's kind of like Drano. So the pH must be lowered first. And then it's mixed with other waste waters, and then it goes into one of two huge tanks at Perma Fix, where bacteria is present that eats away on it in order to break own the organics and render it benign. Then the sludge from the process is landfilled and the water sent to the Dayton Sewer System.
They're doing lab tests on it right now with a small amount of the hydrolysate. And if all goes well with that, up to 10,000 gallons a day will begin to be shipped here in October.
ROSS: And how are the people of Dayton reacting to the prospect of having this stuff trucked into the neighborhood?
LEBLANC: Well, they're angry, to put it mildly. The trucks carrying the stuff are to go right through residential streets in their neighborhoods where their children play, and they're concerned about a possible spill or a possible leak. They're concerned that the hydrolysate won't be tested properly going into the bio-reactor or coming out of it. Perma Fix has not had a stellar reputation in the neighborhood. And they've been cited for odor violations, and they've been put on notice by both the regional air pollution control and the Ohio EPA.
The citizens feel that this was brought in under cover of darkness, and they haven't had any input or any say-so whatsoever. I asked resident Nina Cooper, she was at an open house about the process, and I asked her what she thought.
COOPER: Show me something positive about it. I read the list up there, the odors, the corrosions, the explosion. It's explosive, it's deadly -- it can be. I don't care. They talk about byproduct. If it's so good, put it somewhere else. Let's distribute it evenly here. We get dumped on all the time and we're tired of it. Why? I'll let you figure it out.
ROSS: Aileen, what does she mean by that, getting dumped on all the time?
LEBLANC: Well I think she's referring to the fact that this is a very modest, mostly black neighborhood on Dayton's west side. It's a neighborhood where they keep trying to put landfills in, and other businesses that some people would consider dirty businesses.
ROSS: Well, obviously a significant problem in itself, but why are the people in Dayton so worried about what the Army assures them is safe? They aren't incinerating it, and when it reaches Dayton there's no VX in it.
LEBLANC: Well, I think one of the problems is there just seems to be a bit too much of "trust me" going on here. If this were just Drano coming down the streets, there wouldn't be any stink raised about it at all. But since this stuff came from VX, and the precursors to VX exist in the hydrolysate, even if there's a nano-tad of a chance that something will go wrong, it's enough to scare people pretty badly.
You know, the Army says it's safe, and Perma Fix says it's safe, but I asked Tom Trebonik of Perma Fix if he could understand the reasons that local people are upset about this.
TREBONIK: Certainly I do. This particular chemical agent is a very, very nasty chemical compound. I feel confident that the Army can, in fact, destroy it appropriately and have all of the controls in place to ensure that none of the VX agent leaves that facility. I think the concern is more based on what it was than what the hydrolysate really is.
LEBLANC: I guess you can never prove that any process is 100 percent safe, but the people here believe that the safest way to treat the hydrolysate is to go back to Plan A and do it all at Newport. Newport is a very safe, secure facility. It has its own medical team, it has its own HAZMAT team, and it has emergency response plans in place.
ROSS: So this method that Newport is using of neutralizing the chemicals and then shipping the byproduct offsite for the second treatment phase, is this how the Army is going to deal with the chemical weapons at the other depots?
LEBLANC: No. As far as I've been able to find out, there are still four sites which plan to directly incinerate the chemical weapons, and that scares people. Citizens are working to get that changed to neutralization and final treatment on-site. And from what I understand, the weapons at one particular depot, the Bluegrass Army Depot in Lexington, Kentucky, will be neutralized and then treated on-site using that same process that we talked about that was abandoned at Newport.
The question here seems to be, is it better to move faster and push through this plan to ship to Dayton and maybe lower the risk of a terrorist attack, or are we putting more people at risk by doing so?
ROSS: Aileen LeBlanc is a radio producer based outside Dayton, Ohio. Thanks for filling us in, Aileen.
LEBLANC: You're very welcome.
[MUSIC: Carlos Guedes “Harposaurus” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]
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