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Taking on the Pentagon

In Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, the U.S. Army is preparing to spend a decade incinerating 12,000 tons of leftover “mustard agent” — a chemical weapon intended to immobilize enemy soldiers by producing painful, debilitating blisters on skin and lungs. In Tooele County, Utah, where about half the nation’s mustard agent resides, incineration began last week.[1]

The mustard agent is presently stored in aging cannisters on military bases in the four states and the Army says it is safer to incinerate it than to do nothing.

But this week a coalition of citizens issued a sophisticated engineering report arguing that there’s a third alternative besides “do nothing” and incineration: chemical neutralization. The Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG) in Berea, Kentucky concluded that it seems feasible for the Army to neutralize mustard agent using warm water.

CWWG acknowledged that it lacked sufficient information to demand that the Army immediately shift from incineration to neutralization. Instead, they want the Army itself to study chemical neutralization, with citizen participation. “The purpose of the report is to try and compel the Army to perform due diligence of the fundamental questions,” says Craig Williams the leader of CWWG.

Neither CWWG nor its constituent citizen groups oppose destruction of the chemical warfare agents — they just want it done as safely as possible.

This is a classic example of citizens taking a modern approach to community protection — setting goals (destruction of the mustard agent), examining available alternatives to find the least hazardous, and creating opportunities to participate in decision-making. And, as Elizabeth Crowe of CWWG points out, it shows that it is never too late to pay attention to new information, to heed early warnings and invoke the precautionary principle.

The Army announced new information recently — it discovered the toxic metal mercury in the mustard agent at the level of 65 parts per million (800 pounds of mercury in 6200 tons of mustard agent). If this level of mercury were present in all 12,000 tons, the incinerator program would be releasing 1560 pounds of mercury into the environment — a very large release of a metal that is poisonous in microgram quantities. In addition, there’s a distinct possibility that the Army has underestimated the total quantity of mercury involved.

So far, the Army’s response to the mercury problem has been to say it will burn the mustard agent more slowly than initially planned, so that the concentration of mercury in the incinerator’s smoke stack will never exceed the air quality standards set by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course with this approach, the mercury emitted would still total 1560 pounds — it would just leave the stack more slowly. On the other hand, EPA announced recently that it is now re-evaluating controls for incinerators — which could put the Army’s chemical weapons incinerators out of compliance and delay the whole program. Williams says this is another reason for the Army to abandon incineration now, to avoid an unpleasant surprise later.

History of the Program

The Army decided in 1984 to incinerate leftover chemical warfare agents — “mustard gas” (which is actually a liquid), plus far more deadly agents, VX and GB, also known as sarin, which are true gases — at eight locations: Anniston, Alabama; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Umatilla, Oregon; Tooele County, Utah; Aberdeen, Maryland; Richmond, Kentucky; Pueblo, Colorado; and Newport, Indiana.

By 1985, opposition was growing at each location as people began wondering whether incinerating chemical warfare agents could be done without accidentally releasing deadly gases. No one opposed destruction of the chemical warfare agents — but many questioned whether incineration was the best option.

The Army basically stonewalled the questions, insisting that it knew best. Citizens had reason to wonder where the Army’s programs always made good sense.

In the mid-1980s, the Army built an experimental incinerator for chemical weapons on Johnston Island, an atoll 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. Congress’s General Accounting Office examined the test program and reported that “unplanned and unscheduled maintenance downtime problems… occurred on an almost daily basis.” Still the Army insisted all was well — a stance of denial that did not inspire confidence in communities slated for incinerators of their own.

In 1989 it was revealed that the Army owned at least 14,000 contaminated sites — including some of the largest and most dangerous environmental hazards imaginable. For example, it was revealed that over the years the Army had fired or dumped an estimated four million rounds of ordinance into the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay near Aberdeen. Many of these rounds were unexploded bombs and rockets filled with mustard agent, nerve gas, chlorine gas, or tear gas.[2] They have never been recovered. Nautical charts show the area as “restricted — keep out” but people who are fishing in a skiff don’t necessarily consult charts.

In 1991 community groups from the eight communities targeted for chemical weapons incinerators formally launched a coalition, the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), led by Craig Williams, a Vietnam veteran in Kentucky. Since then their coalition has grown to over 200 groups nationwide.

The same year, 1991, CWWG commissioned a study of alternative methods for destroying chemical warfare agents. That study indicated that chemical neutralization would work well for mustard agent. Mustard agent contains chlorine, which — if burned — would produce dioxins and furans, among the most toxic chemicals known to science. Neutralization would avoid production of these most toxic of byproducts.

The Army stonewalled and resisted, but CWWG and its constituent citizen groups went to Washington and bent the ears of their Congressional delegations. The citizens’ position — we want this done, but we want it done as safely as possible — resonated. Eventually Congress ordered the Army to consider alternatives to incineration.

As a direct result of CWWG’s member groups bringing relentless pressure on the Army at every possible opportunity, providing detailed alternatives for the Army to consider, and getting Congressional staff involved — the Army eventually abandoned the incinerators planned for Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland,[3] where it proceeded to neutralize 1818 tons of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground without mishap.

Now CWWG wants the Army to consider doing the same thing with mustard agent at all the other sites. The report released this week showed, from an engineering perspective, that it seems feasible and affordable to either retrofit incinerators with neutralizers, or to build new neutralizers near each existing incinerator.

The Army now has more experience neutralizing mustard agent (1818 tons) than it has incinerating mustard agent (67 tons) — so the Army may have a hard time squirming out of the embarrassing position CWWG has put it in. And of course if the Army balks, CWWG has already demonstrated that it knows how turn the screws in Washington.

CWWG has demonstrated that a tiny group of citizens can take on a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon program and win. By sticking to their knitting, keeping their eye on the prize, and never, ever giving up, Craig Williams and his seasoned band of incineration fighters across the country have proven once again, as Margaret Mead famously said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of the indispensable Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: peter@rachel.org

[1] Patty Henetz, “Cold war’s killer gas on way to extinction,” Salt Lake City (Utah) Tribune May 19, 2006.

[2] John M. Bull, “Army Site May be Too Hazardous to Clean,” Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. F1. And John M. R. Bull, Phil Galewitz, and Kenn Marshall, “Nation’s military has toxic embrace,” Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. A1.

[3] Juliet Eilprin, “Chemical weapons disposal drawn-out,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), July 8, 2006.

 

 

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Peter Montague is a fellow with the Science & Environmental Health Network, living in New Jersey.

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