Moving nerve gas waste is criticized


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.

Once the tankers are loaded, the mixture separates into a layer of man-made chemicals about the consistency of diesel fuel, floating on a solution of water and lye, according to Army documents. The mixture is classed as a hazardous waste because it is dangerously corrosive, and some ingredients are banned by international law as potential chemical weapons in their own right.

"Stand-alone, these things do have some toxic properties, but in this mix they're no more hazardous than table salt," Lindblad said.

But the Army's VXH chemical information sheets, prepared to help hazardous materials teams respond to an accident, say the mixture includes six potentially toxic chemicals. Among them are minute amounts of a nerve agent called EA 2192 - a "daughter" chemical produced during the initial treatment that is almost as potent as VX.

There are also larger quantities of several man-made acids that are little studied and poorly understood.

Caution in Ohio

The safety limits of those chemicals are "unknown," according to the Army's information sheets. Only one of them is listed in government or industry databases of hazardous chemicals, where its entry says: "toxicity data have not been evaluated."

"These are pretty unique compounds," said Harold O'Connell, a hazardous chemicals expert at the Ohio EPA. "We just don't have a track record. It's not like you can go to a chemical dictionary and look up these compounds and their effects."

The Ohioans were especially worried about VXH spilling into a stream, pond or drainage ditch, because the mixture is caustic enough to kill aquatic plants and animals.

At 20 parts per billion - the maximum concentration in the treated mixture - VX killed half of the striped bass exposed to it in about 18 hours, according to a report by the Ohio EPA. An agency toxicologist "strongly recommended" against discharging the final residues into any body of water until their effects are better known.

Denny Bristow, coordinator of the Dayton Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team, said his main concern about VXH was the lack of basic information - such as its response to heat, cold and pressure. "If I have 4,000 gallons of Drano, I could predict how fast it would evaporate and where the vapor cloud would go," Bristow said, "but without the vapor pressure of the [VXH] I wasn't able to make those predictions."

Army and DuPont representatives say the risk of an accident is low. The tankers will be sealed, equipped with vacuum pumps to mop up spills quickly and driven by specially trained workers, they said.

DuPont has not decided whether the slurry will travel by highway or by a combination of road and rail, Farina said. If it travels by road, the company would probably stick to current hazardous chemical routes, he said. He declined to identify the Maryland roads, other than Interstate 95, that DuPont routinely uses.

In December, the Army considered two possible routes. One passed through Ohio and Pennsylvania. The other curved south into West Virginia and cut through about 50 miles of Western Maryland - along Interstate 68 from the West Virginia line to Cumberland, and up Route 220 to the Pennsylvania line.

Safer route

Although the Maryland route was 80 miles longer, it passed through less-populated areas, according to analysts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who studied the issue for the Army.

Using federal accident statistics, Oak Ridge estimated that VXH tankers would be involved in three accidents over the course of the shipments - all involving only property damage and no injuries.

A spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration said there have been 355 crashes on I-68 west of Cumberland in the past three years, 58 of which involved trucks. There have been 33 accidents on Route 220, including four truck crashes.

Farina, the DuPont spokesman, said the company has not ruled out any route options.

Farina said the company will hold public meetings and solicit comments on the VXH plan in communities around the Deepwater, N.J., plant. DuPont needs a permit from New Jersey to discharge the final waste product into the Delaware River, but it does not need permission to truck the VXH through other states.

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the agency has not been informed of the Army's plan. "Oftentimes, the military acts and sets up stuff with local authorities and we don't have any knowledge of it," he said.

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