VX nerve gas is one ot the most lethal chemicals ever devised by man. A drop on human skin will kill a person within minutes. As a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Treaty in 1997, the U.S. agreed to dispose of the deadly substance. The U.S. Army has plans to dump large quantities of VX nerve gas waste product into the Delaware River. It intends to treat the compound before releasing it into the water, but no one knows what effect this might have on the ecosystem that depends on the Delaware. These plans have been halted temporarily through the lobbying efforts of elected officials from states along the river. What is the next step? I interviewed Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of Delaware Riverkeeper, via email for more information.
Can you describe your organization’s origin and mission? How broad an area do you serve?
We are a nonprofit membership organization with 7000 members throughout the Delaware River Watershed- from the headwaters in the Catskill Mountains in New York State and the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, through New Jersey and the Delaware Estuary and Bay to Delaware and the Atlantic Ocean. We formed in 1988 and were the first Riverkeeper project that organized after the founding of the Hudson Riverkeeper. Riverkeepers across the nation and internationally are organized into the Waterkeeper Alliance, dedicated to protecting rivers and water.
Can you describe the current situation concerning VX dumping? What is VX poison? What are its predicted and/or possible effects on the river? How did it come to be slated for dumping in the Delaware?
The U.S. Army is proposing to transport 1,269 tons of VX nerve agent waste from its Newport Indiana facility where it is now stored across the country to the Dupont Chambers Works facility at Carney’s Point, Salem County, NJ where it would be put through their hazardous waste plant, with the effluent discharged into the Delaware River. The waste, known as hydrolysate, would be carried by tank truck over public highways for over 1000 miles, through 4 states, 2 to 3 tank trucks per day for 2 to 3 years. The effluent that would be discharged into the Delaware River (and the hydrolysate that would be transported) would contain toxic components and may contain live VX, since the material would only be tested to a detection limit of 20 ppb (parts per billion- one ppb is one microgram per liter). Live VX and other dangerous biologically active compounds could be in the waste up to just under 20 ppb. The effect of these highly dangerous ingredients on fish, wildlife, and the small critters that live on the bottom of the river is not known. Only a small test has been done by Dupont on one batch of the hydrolysate and the test results were inconclusive, according to critics.
According to an Ohio EPA study, VX at a level of 20 ppb after 17.4 hours killed half of the striped bass exposed. As a result of this and numerous other concerns, an agency toxicologist “strongly recommended” against discharge of treated VX hydrolysate into the river there until there was “more information about the possible toxic effects of the treated hydrolysate discharge on aquatic life”. (Interoffice Memo from John F. Estenick, DSW, Toxics Advisor, Subject Treated VX Hydrolysate Discharge Recommendation Technical Report, October 10, 2003, Ohio EPA)
VX nerve agent is the most potent chemical weapon ever created. One drop on the skin will kill a person in minutes. There is enough VX stockpiled in the U.S. to kill every person on the planet 500 times over. The United States agreed in 1997 when the Chemical Weapons Treaty was signed with other nations, to destroy VX and all other chemical weapons. Only a small amount has been destroyed so far.
Can you describe the alternative to the Army’s current plans? What is the procedure they followed in Indiana? Does this seem to be the best solution?
It is our position that the Army should revert back to its original plan to treat and dispose of the VX Nerve Agent on site, at the Newport, Indiana facility, as was planned in the late ’90s. The Newport, Indiana community has been vocal in supporting this option and through an advisory committee worked for many years with the Army, scientists and chemical weapons experts on devising a safe and effective process acceptable to all; the state of Indiana has permitted it.
Supercritical water oxidation (SCWO), the approved system, is a more environmentally safe means of destruction and does not require incineration (eliminating air pollution) or discharge to a waterway (eliminating VX waste effluent). There are also other known alternative systems that can be used on site in Newport. On site destruction avoids the dangers that accompany the transport of VX hydrolysate which contains toxic constituents and can contain any amount under 20 ppb of VX nerve agent. It also avoids the discharge of effluent to a waterway.
Apparently, the Army and Dupont feel they can get approval to dump VX waste here. When President Bush abruptly changed course and decided not to pursue SCWO at Newport, the Army said that it would be quicker and cheaper to send it to an already existing plant. They tried to send it to Ohio but it was defeated by public opposition. Now the public outcry here in the Delaware River Watershed and in the staes that would be exposed to the dangers of the trucking (Pennsylvania has the most miles that would be exposed, along Route 80), have halted the plan temporarily. Elected officials, Congressmen, NJ and Delaware Governors and many towns and thousands of people have come out against the proposal.
The transport of VX hydrolysate has been suspended for 60 days while the GAO conducts a costs- benefits analysis. They will also compare the methods of disposal. The SCWO method “does not produce any toxic residue requiring discharge to a waterway”, according to the Delaware Riverkeeper site.
What can citizens do to help make sure this situation is safely resolved?
People can voice their concerns and opposition to the proposal to bring VX nerve agent waste to the Delaware River. By going to www.DelawareRiverkeeper.org, you can sign up to be an e-activist. You can send a letter online to our elected representatives. This is extremely effective. The Army thought they would already be transporting the VX waste by the end of 2004 (it was first proposed in the beginning of 2004). But people found out about the plan to push this through and came out to hearings and wrote letters by the thousands. Our elected representatives heard them. Congressmen and Senators from New Jersey demanded further study. The Governors of New Jersey and Delaware contacted the Army with their opposition. Letters to the editor are very effective.
Studies are ongoing and the fight is not over. Continued public opposition and public support for officials when they do the right thing is key to stopping the Dupont plan and securing the project to destroy these horrible weapons on site in Indiana.
People can get their town to pass a resolution against the plan; this is happening many places. A sample resolution can be downloaded from DRN’s website. If you want to do more, contact DRN. There will be public hearings and events in the future after the GAO audit is complete and the Army makes a final determination.