The Army's Chemical Weapons Conundrum

The Army says its stockpiles of chemical weapons are a threat to the American people that must be disposed of expeditiously. But plans to neutralize 1,269 tons of VX nerve gas and release the waste product into the environment are going nowhere fast. A rising tide of opposition is swelling against the latest scheme to ship up to 4 million gallons of corrosive wastewater more than 700 miles for further processing before it is dumped into the Delaware River.

VX is the most deadly of the chemical weapons; ingestion of only 10 milligrams can cause death. The government created the stockpile during the 1960's at the height of the Cold War, but has only recently decided to dispose of the lethal chemicals. The United States agreed to destroy its reserves of VX, GB and Mustard gases by 2015 when it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty in 1997. However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Army accelerated the timetable ("Operation Speedy Neut") to free the country of chemical weapons by 2007, and subsequent world events have reinforced the urgency.

"The recent events in Spain underscore that terrorists will go after targets they value," said Colonel Jesse Barber, the project manager overseeing the Army's Alternative Technologies and Approaches group. "The greatest risk [to Americans] is the continued storage of our chemical weapons."

The Army has proposed to dispose of the VX nerve gas cache stored at the Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana using a two-step process. At the Newport facility, the Army would neutralize the nerve gas using sodium hydroxide and hot water, creating VX hydrolysate, or caustic wastewater that the Army likens to drain cleaner. While the resulting mix is 85 percent water, it is highly corrosive, with a pH level of about 13.5.

Tanker trucks or railroad cars would then take more than 700 trips to bring this hydrolysate to the Dupont Chambers Works treatment plant in Deepwater, NJ for further processing. According to Sarah Silverstone, President of environmental consultancy Brockport Microbiology, a tanker spill of the hydrosylate into a waterway would "kill any fish and all plant life" contained inside. Silverstone said that most organisms can not survive a pH level of greater than 11, and that while hydrolysate is much less toxic than nerve gas, it burns human skin on contact.

At the Dupont facility, the hydrolysate would first be chemically oxidized to remove odors to lessen its impact on the surrounding community. The wastewater would then be mixed with other industrial waste, treated and then dumped into the Delaware River, and the solid waste product (effluent) would be landfilled at the Dupont location.

The Army held an informational meeting in nearby Carney's Point, NJ on March 17 to allow public comment on the proposal from area residents, who nearly unanimously vowed to fight the project. A representative from Senator Rob Andrews (D-NJ) read his letter to the Army stating that he would oppose this proposal because it seeks to get rid of the chemicals "in the wrong place and in the wrong way." Andrews promised to do "everything he could to fight this plan."

Residents and environmental activists are concerned that the neutralization and treatment processes proposed have never been done before on a large scale, and that the scientific study of the waste products' toxicity is based on theoretical models. "It's experimental science," said Allen Muller, executive director of non-profit environmental group Green Delaware.

According to Jeff Lindblad, a spokesman for the Army's Chemical Materials Agency, the process has been tested on a 1/10th scale, and the hydrolysate treatment process that would be performed by Dupont is very similar to other industrial waste treatment programs.

But John Kearney, an attorney for the Clean Air Council of Delaware, says that dumping in the Delaware should not be allowed until more information is known about the toxicity of three chemicals contained in the hydrolysate -- EMPA (ethyl methylphosphonic acid), MPA (methylphosphonic acid) and EA2192, citing reports produced by the Ohio Environment Protection Agency in 2003.

The Army proposed a similar disposal plan last year where hydrolysate would be shipped to Dayton, OH, and treated and dumped in the Great Miami River, but EPA objections and community concern forced the Army to withdraw the project.

Dr. John Estenik, Toxics Advisor to Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water, sent a letter on October 10, 2003 to the EPA stating "I strongly recommend that discharge of treated VX hydrolysate... should not occur without more information about the possible toxic effects of the treated hydrolysate discharge on aquatic life."

The information provided by the Army to residents did not list EA2192 in its description of the hydrolysate compound, but Lindblad says that trace amounts (less than 1 part per million) could be found in the wastewater. "It's in the mix. By itself, it has toxic value, but in the mix it is extremely safe."

However, a 1998 report by the Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, a division of the National Academies of Science, says "Because EA-2192 retains a phosphorus-sulfur bond, its toxicity is only slightly reduced from the toxicity of VX." The report also says that although EMPA and MPA have low toxicity, the CWC treaty requires their destruction "because they could potentially be reconverted to nerve agents if they could be recovered from the hydrolysate."

The hydrolysate would be combined into Dupont's chemical wastewater that is treated and released into the Delaware River, which is also a major source of drinking water for residents of Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware. United Water Delaware, a privately owned utility that provides drinking water to New Castle County, has a water intake facility on the Christina River, a tributary of the Delaware that is about two miles away from the Dupont facility. Joanne Rufft, a spokeswoman for United Water says that because of the distance between the facilities, the company is not overly concerned about the dumping proposal. "It's a non-issue for us."

According to Doug Rambo, a hydrologist for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the competition between the tides of the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay determine whether or not the wastewater moves upriver towards the United Water facility. "If the ocean tide is up, then the Bay is stronger than current coming down, so the flow could potentially move things up. It's usually not too much of an issue."

John Straight, the site manager for Dupont's Chambers Works facility says that studies of the proposed treatment process conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and Virginia Polytechnic Institute indicate that the wastewater would not be toxic to aquatic organisms. Straight says that his facility is "10 times safer than industry average," based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the Chambers Works facility was cited by the EPA for violations between 2002-2003, requiring 5 "Enforcement Actions" and penalties totaling $8500.

Debbie Heaton, conservation director for the Delaware Sierra Club, says that Dupont's environmental record "is a mixed bag." Heaton says that Dupont uses very innovative methods for treating wastewater, and is generally considered one of the better actors in Delaware, but the company's record varies from state to state. Heaton says that Dupont has taken out full-page ads in Delaware newspapers and has mailed promotional materials to senior citizens in the state to get their support for the project.

The Army's Barber says "Offsite disposal is the only way to start the process this year." He says that it would cost $500 million to build the necessary storage and treatment facilities in Indiana to dispose of the chemical weapons within the state. Barber says that there are no wastewater treatment plants in Indiana capable of processing the hydrolysate. While he would not comment on other potential wastewater treatment sites, he says "Dupont was on the top of the list."

The Army is currently incinerating chemical weapons at facilities in Anniston, AL and Tooele, UT. Army spokesman Lindblad says incineration was originally considered for the Newport stockpile, but Congress requested that the Army considered alternate technologies, and that neutralization was the most effective method proposed.

The Army's public comment period on the VX project ends on April 19, at which point they will decide whether or not to continue with the plan to have the wastewater dumped in New Jersey into the Delaware River.

"If I lived there I'd be concerned that [the Army and Dupont] were being super careful about doing their homework," says environmental consultant Silverstone.

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.

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