The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored … some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:
The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored, some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:
Nerve Agent VX is a clear, odorless liquid with the consistency of motor oil. It was
accidentally created during the Korean War, when British chemists were experimenting
with various concoctions meant to kill lice on North Korean POW’s and refugees. Nerve
Agent VX kills within minutes after contact with the skin. It has never been used in
combat by the United States. Instead, most of the country’s supply sits in a highly-
guarded tank at the Newport Chemical Depot in west-central Indiana. In 1985, Congress
ordered the chemical weapons destroyed because many seemed obsolete. In 1997, the
United States joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits countries from
developing, producing, stockpiling or using chemical weapons.
Then, as U.S. Army spokesperson Terry Arthur explains, terrorists slammed planes into
the World Trade Center towers:
“After September 11th, 2001, because the public suddenly became aware of the possibility
for terrorism here in the United States, folks living near the stockpiles became acutely
aware of that. And the army began to look at ways to accelerate destruction of the
The Army is planning to burn some of its chemical weapons in incinerators. The Nerve
Agent VX that’s stored in Newport, Indiana will be destroyed through a neutralization
process. That’s a process that makes the nerve agent no more harmful than a household
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The watered-down version of the nerve agent is called hydrolysate. It will be shipped by
tanker truck to Perma-Fix Environmental Services, a company in Dayton, Ohio. It’s a
company that usually handles industrial wastes and used oils.
“If you get your oil changed anywhere at a service station near the Dayton, Ohio area,
chances are, the used oil from your vehicle ends up here.”
That’s company Vice President Tom Trebonik. He says the hydrolysate will, simply put,
be broken down by a natural process. It will be eaten by microscopic bugs. And then it
breaks down even more into a form that will be pumped into the sewer system.
But, once word of a “nerve agent” coming to town spread around the small, poor
neighborhood near the plant, environmentalists began working with residents to voice
opposition to its disposal. They tacked up signs in the local supermarket and carry-out
that read “Deadly VX Nerve Agent” is coming to the neighborhood.
Martha Chatterton is a young mother of one with another child on the way. She lives in a
small house in a decaying area. Her husband fixes cars in the garage out back. They’re
glued to the news on CNN about heightened terror alerts. They know terrorist attacks are
a possibility. But they don’t want a problem from Indiana shipped to their backyard.
Chatterton is worried about the health effects of living near a plant that deals with such
industrial wastes. She says some days the air is orange and smells of a chemical stew.
“Well, last year we did the whole yard with roses and different flowers, and about a week
after we planted them, all of them died. So there’s got… there’s something wrong with
the ground here, because when I dug the hole for the rose tree, it smelled like gas fumes.”
Chatterton fears Perma-Fix won’t be able to properly handle the hydrolysate. The
company was cited in 2001 for odor violation but has since installed equipment to solve
the problem. Beyond that, the U.S. EPA and the Army see no reason why the treated
nerve agent can’t be trucked into town. Again, Army spokesperson Terry Arthur:
“We understand the concern of the public because it’s derived from a chemical agent.
What we want them to understand is that we have truckers who will be dedicated and
trained specifically for hauling this product and getting it across the state line to the Ohio
facility, where experts have been working with this kind of material for years.”
With the threat of terrorism, there’s little that’s likely to slow the pace of the destruction
of the nerve agent. The risks of leaving it intact seem greater than the risks associated
with destroying it.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.