Plan to dump nerve agent waste in Delaware River riles civic groups

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday, April 6, 2006.)

They don’t want it in New Jersey.

They didn’t want it in Ohio.

But they do want it in Newport, Ind.

So why does the U.S. Army want to chemically destroy VX nerve agent in Newport, Ind., and truck the wastewater byproduct to New Jersey for neutralization and eventual disposal into the Delaware River?

New Jersey residents have opposed the project in public meeting with representatives from the Army and DuPont chemical company. Delaware Bay fishermen worry about effects on the shellfish industry. The plan’s been rejected in Ohio, where the Army first tried to dispose of the VX wastewater, or hydrolysate.

Groups in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey and Delaware want the VX and its hydrolysate fully treated at the Indiana plant. They’re holding parallel news conferences today to voice their opposition to the DuPont plan.

“Everyone was kind of saying, ‘I don’t want them to burn it in my community,’” said Elizabeth Crowe, of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a nonprofit based near the Bluegrass, Ky. “The mom in Kentucky says I think we should ship this out to the desert in Utah because nobody lives there. But then the mom in Utah says, I live here, and I have kids. What about us? So the decision was to say we want to destroy these stockpiles in the communities they’re stored in. We don’t want to dump on another community.”

In 1985, Congress ordered the Army to destroy its chemical weapons, according to Jeff Lindblad, the spokesman for the Army Chemical Materials Agency.

In 1987, the Army began stockpiling chemical agents in Newport, Ind. and decided to incinerate the liquid VX, GB and mustard agents. By 1992, however, people were raising concerns about incineration. Congress told the Army to look for an alternate means of disposal at depots in Aberdeen, Md. and Indiana.

After three years of public meetings, the Army decided in 1997 to chemically neutralize the stockpiles in Indiana and Aberdeen, Md. It hired the Parsons Corp. to design, build, operate and eventually close a chemical reactor at the Indiana depot.

The Army settled on a neutralization process in which VX is put into a chemical reactor, heated to 194 degrees Fahrenheit and mixed with sodium hydroxide. This destroys the VX and produces a caustic wastewater byproduct called hydrolysate, consisting of about 85 percent water, four percent sodium hydroxide, and eight or nine percent of organic salts, according to Col. Jesse Barber of the Chemical Materials Agency.

To neutralize the corrosive hydrolysate, the Army tested a low temperature, high pressure process called super critical water oxidation, or SCWO, which breaks down the chemicals, evaporates the water and leaves a solid salt to be disposed in specially approved landfills. By 2001, Army officials found SCWO couldn’t handle the VX hydrolysate, Lindblad said. The wastewater was so caustic it broke down pipes and liners too quickly.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. Defense Secretary directed the Army to accelerate the chemical destruction program.

The Army hired Perma-Fix Environmental Services of Dayton, Ohio in December 2002 to handle the hydrolysate. Perma-Fix had a history of pollution problems operating in a poor neighborhood of west Dayton, area resident Madeline Breslin recalled.

“It looked like amateur hour,” said Breslin who toured Perma-Fix’s VX lab. “I could not believe it. And here we are, talking about the deadliest chemical weapon in the arsenal of the United States, and they’re playing chemistry games in a walk-in closet that’s dirty.”

Bruce Rittman, an environmental engineering professor at Northwestern University, documented the plant’s sharp, acrid stench in his study for the Montgomery County, Ohio government. He found Perma-Fix’s proposal didn’t answer basic questions, such as whether the hydrolysate would cause ecotoxicity when diluted into municipal wastewater and eventually the Great Miami River. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said Perma-Fix’s data was a mess, hastily attached in illegibly scrawled handwriting at the end of its report.

The government in Montgomery County, Ohio, refused to grant a sewage permit. The project was dead. Two months later, in December 2003, a legal advertisement in a small Salem County, N.J. paper revealed DuPont and its Deepwater, Salem County, treatment plant were now in the picture. The Army hadn’t informed local government officials. Lindblad called that a mistake.

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, led several area congressmen in demanding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and eventually the federal Environmental Protection Agency – review the plan. Then-Gov. James E. McGreevey and Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner also opposed the plan.

A month later, DuPont acknowledged it had disposed of 25 liters of hydrolysate without state permission. It was the beginning of a pattern of concealment and incompetence, Andrews said.

“They actually tried it out before even going to New Jersey environmental regulators for permission,” Andrews said. “That’s a no-no.”

The Army began destroying VX last May. Since then, there have been at least four spills at the Indiana facility. Army lab tests in 2004 found VX survived the neutralization process at more than 20 parts per billion. Lindblad said anything measuring that high doesn’t leave the plant and is neutralized again. The Army found last summer that hydrolysate is three times more flammable than originally believed with a flashpoint as low as 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

An April 2005 federal EPA report raised concerns about the hydrolysate’s effect on ecology in the Delaware River and Bay, but that position was dropped this February. A CDC review is pending.

Another problem remains. Existing technology can only measure VX down to 14 parts per billion in water. Beyond that, readings are unclear, according to DuPont chemical engineer Todd Owens.

“The bottom line is we don’t know that there won’t be any VX below that level,” said Tracy Carluccio, special projects director for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Groups in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Delaware and New Jersey want the Army to neutralize the hydrolysate on site in Indiana, using the SCWO process that’s used at the Army’s depot in Bluegrass, Ky.

The process there is different, according to Lindblad, in that the VX hydrolysate is mixed with mustard and GB hydrolysate, which aren’t as caustic. That lowers its corrosiveness and allows the SCWO process to handle it.

“You’re not corroding your liners as much at Bluegrass,” Jeff Lindblad said. “We have determined at Newport that we would have to change out the liners – and these are made of titanium – 230 times, at least eight times a month. It would have a major impact on the time it takes.”

Lindblad estimates SCWO would add two to three years and $350 million to the project. Some, including Andrews, are skeptical. He’s never gotten answers to his questions about costs on transportation, insurance, and permit applications for the DuPont plan.

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1985: Congress mandates the Army destroy all its chemical weapons.

1987: Army decides to incinerate stockpile at Newport, Ind. depot.

1992: Congress directs Army to look for alternatives to incineration at depots in Newport and Aberdeen, Md.

1994: Congress creates Army Alternative Technologies and Approach Program.

1995: Army asks industries for conceptual design packages.

1995-97: Public meetings held.

1997: Army decides to use chemical utilization at Newport site.

1998: Army releases environmental-impact statement for Newport.

1999: Parsons Corp. chosen to design, build, operate and close Newport chemical reactor.

2001: Years of testing finds problems with super critical water oxidation.

– Army begins discussing disposing of VX hydrolysate off-site.

– Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld directs Army to look for ways to accelerate VX destruction after Sept. 11 attacks.

May 2002: Army announces plans to accelerate VX destruction at Newport.

December 2002: Army hires Perma-Fix Environmental Services of Dayton, Ohio, to dispose of hydrolysate.

January 2003: Public meetings span six months in Montgomery County, Ohio.

October 2003: Montgomery County refuses to approve Army’s sewer discharge permit.

December 2003: Public notice appears about Army’s plan to transport hydrolysate to DuPont plant in Salem County.

April 2004: Congressmen, led by U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, ask the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review project. Delaware and New Jersey governors formally oppose project.

May 2004: DuPont acknowledges 25 liters of hydrolysate were treated at its Salem County facility and the saltwater byproduct released into the Delaware River without state permission.

April 2005: EPA report raises ecological concerns about plan.

May 2005: Army begins neutralizing VX at Newport reactor.

Feb. 2006: EPA drops opposition to Army plan.

– Compiled by Daniel Walsh