U.S. Army Suspends Cross-Country Shipments of VX Wastewater

TERRE HAUTE, Indiana, June 26, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Army has agreed to temporarily suspend shipments of VX chemical weapons disposal by-products from Indiana to Texas while a federal court in Terre Haute hears evidence in a lawsuit seeking a halt to the shipments.

Texas and Indiana citizens groups, joined by two national organizations - the Sierra Club and the Chemical Weapons Working Group - were poised to file a temporary restraining order motion to stop the shipments but opted to request a voluntary "stand-down" from the Army first.

The Army accepted under conditions that were met during a conference call last week with attorneys for the citizen plaintiffs, Army attorneys, attorneys for Veolia Environmental Services, and U.S. District Judge Larry McKinney.

Over the next three weeks, leading to an evidentiary hearing July 16, both sides will submit their cases in writing to the court.

A Newport disposal site employee guides a stacker operator as he maneuvers an intermodal container filled with VX hydrolysate. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
The toxic by-product at issue is VX hydrolysate, caustic wastewater created when VX nerve agent is destroyed by mixing it with sodium hydroxide and water at the U.S. Army's Newport Indiana Chemical Depot.

VX is so deadly that one drop can kill in moments and its possession and use is prohibited by international treaty. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires destruction of these agents by all nations by specified target dates.

The Newport Indiana Depot is one of eight Army installations in the United States with a chemical agent stockpile. Completed in June 2003, the facility was built to destroy the 1,152 metric tons of VX chemical agent stored there in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Army began agent disposal operations at the Indiana Depot in May 2005.

On April 5, 2007, the Army signed a $49 million contract with Veolia Environmental Services of Lombard, Illinois to provide final treatment of the caustic wastewater at its plant in Port Arthur, Texas. The company is a subsidary of the Paris-based global environmental services corporation Veolia Environnment.

The Army says that because the wastewater from the VX neutralization process is being transported to Veolia for final treatment, the United States receives credit for destruction of the Newport stockpile under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"Once the VX hydrolysate is offloaded from the intermodal transport containers into the mixing tanks at Veolia, it is credited towards the U.S. agent destruction totals," the Army said in a statement.

On June 18, the United States met the Chemical Weapons Convention milestone for destruction of 45 percent of its declared Category One chemical weapons stockpile, according to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency.

The Army began trucking the VX hydrolysate, VXH, out of the Newport Indiana Depot to be burned in the low-income minority community of Port Arthur, Texas, on the night of April 16 without making the shipments generally known to citizens in the affected states along the trucking route, the plaintiff groups allege.

The tankers have been hauling 4,000 gallon containers of the material through portions of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Of an estimated 1.8 million gallons of VX hydrolysate at the Newport Chemical Depot, approximately 375,000 gallons have already been shipped. In Port Arthur, the first batch was mixed with other hazardous waste and incinerated April 22.

On May 8, the citizens groups filed a lawsuit against the shipments after requests to stop the transportation were ignored by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana State Police, federal and state elected officials in both Indiana and Texas.

The former VX production facility at Newport Chemical Depot, operated from 1961 -1968, producing 4,400 tons of the nerve agent VX. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
The suit claims that the risks associated with transporting the VX waste are not fully recognized, due to inadequate analysis of the concentrations of VX nerve agent and other deadly compounds in the waste, such as an experimental substance known as EA 2192.

Plans for shipping and treating the caustic wastewater from Newport have been turned back by Ohio and New Jersey.

"The Armyís attempts to ship and treat the wastewater at both Perma-Fix, Inc., in Dayton, Ohio, and at DuPontís Secure Environmental Treatment facility in Deepwater, New Jersey, were met with equal amounts of resistance on both the political and environmental activist sides of the issue," the Army said in a statement.

Chemical Weapons Working Group Director Craig Williams said the current lawsuit is necessary because during the Army's attempts to ship this same material to Ohio and then New Jersey, "citizens repeatedly requested to have the process opened up for an independent review of the sampling and analysis process, but such requests were ignored or refused."

"This has left little recourse for citizens other than litigation in an effort to protect the communities affected by the shipment and incineration of the VXH," he said.

Sara Morgan of Montezuma, Indiana, a local leader of Citizens Against Incineration at Newport has been questioning the Army's decision to ship this by-product across country for years. "We had an agreed to and permitted method of treating this waste right here," she said. "Folks along the transportation corridor have no idea of the risks associated with this material."

Williams says, "These shipments violate federal law barring interstate transportation of chemical weapons as defined in the Chemical Weapons Treaty which this material clearly falls into."

In Port Arthur, encircled by major refineries and chemical plants, which crowd up against the backyards in low-income neighborhoods, citizens are resisting the shipments and incineration of the VX hydrolysate in their town.

"This is a critical situation here in Port Arthur," said Hilton Kelley, director of the local Community In-Power Development Association, one of the plaintiff groups.

Former actor and stuntman Hilton Kelley is a Port Arthur native. He is organizing opposition to the VX shipments and disposal. (Photo courtesy Ohio Citizen Action)
"Not only was the community not notified before this operation began, but the risks associated with this material continue to be held secret by the Army and Veolia Environmental Services, the company accepting and burning this waste," Kelley said.

Dr. Michael Sommer II says Kelley's dismay at the secrecy is well-founded. A Houston-based expert in forensic environmental chemistry, Dr. Sommer said in his declaration submitted with the court filing, "The proposed analytical test methods the Army developed to assure complete neutralization of the VX are wholly inadequate to ensure protection of public health and the environment."

The Veolia plant in Port Arthur has no monitors capable of determining if the VX hydrolysate has been completely combusted or if txoic smokestack emissions are entering the air over the Port Arthur community, the plaintiff groups claim in documents before the court.

"The danger from incineration of VX hydrolysate liquid waste is especially egregious because the Port Arthur incinerator facility is not required to use or be equipped with a stack VX continuous emissions monitoring system," says Dr. Neil Carman, a former environmental regulatory official for the Texas Air Control Board, now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Dr. Neil Carman is concerned about air emissions from incineration of VXH. (Photo courtesy Sigma Xi, TCU Chapter)


Carman points out that no trial burns are being done at the Veolia incinerator to determine the effectiveness of burning this material; the VXH will be mixed with other waste without identifying the combination of chemicals emitted.

It is also a clear case of environmental injustice, he said.

"Environmental justice in Port Arthur-Golden Triangle Gulf Coast region is a serious concern due to the minority demographics, significant numbers of low income families close to or in poverty," said Carman in his declaration submitted to the court.

Both Carman and Sommer challenge the Army's position that VX cannot reform in the VX hydrolysate mixture while it sits waiting to be shipped from Indiana or while in holding tanks in Texas.

Carman's declaration states, "The National Research Council report confirms that if the pH is allowed to drop VX will reform."

Dr. Fred Millar, a Virginia-based expert on homeland security, hazardous materials transportation and chemical accident prevention, says the Army's transportation risk estimates "do not consider any potential release of VX or EA2192 as a result of possible crash, fire, or of a possible terrorist attack, including hijacking, during or prior to transport."

"The release and dispersion from a truck containing material including a residual quantity of VX, as with any of a number of other ultra-hazardous materials in transportation," Millar said, "could potentially cause many deaths and injuries."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.