Fears Over Nerve Gas Waste

This is one of those stories where each character you meet believes wholeheartedly in what they are telling you. If you had an opinion in the back of your mind when you approached the assignment, it was turned over once, perhaps even twice.

As you get closer to the area sometimes known as refinery row, you begin to notice jumpsuits, overalls and uniforms everywhere. People are getting out of their trucks at the gas station in them. They're walking through the lobby of your hotel in them. And they're leaving the local crab shack in them. They're different colors, with different logos. But you quickly become aware of the fact that this is oil country and these jobs are crucial to the local economy.

Driving near certain refineries and facilities, my producer and I were overwhelmed by bizarre odors at times. We were in the area to do a story on VX agent hydrolysate -- essentially a leftover substance from the compound commonly known as nerve gas -- and its incineration. Needless to say we sped up often.

Was there dangerous VX agent in the air? Keep in mind that this is one of the deadliest chemicals humans have created to hurl at one another. According to the CDC, nerve agents in the VX class prevent the body from controlling muscles so much so that the body loses its ability to breathe.

In our first interview with Michael Sommer, a forensic environmental chemist who has worked on behalf of chemical concerns and environmental groups, the argument for why the Army's measurement methods are wrong become very compelling.

I asked Sommers what's the army's fundamental misunderstanding of how to dispose of nerve gas?

"Their fundamental misunderstanding is two-fold: 1) they neglected or did not understand the nature of the material once its been reacted and secondly they were never able to test it, at least using appropriate methods to see if there was any vx left in the solution.

"Let me give you an example, a simple one; what this does is you react the vx and you have a layer that's like water and you have a smaller layer maybe two or three percent which is oil and this oil has vastly more vx in it than is in the water.

"So if we fill a glass full of water, put some olive oil in the top of it we have olive oil and water. But if we put a straw and suck out the water from underneath, all we're ever going to determine is that there was water.

"We know there's water and oil and this oil happens to have vx nerve gas which is extraordinarily dangerous. The amount of this material to kill you would be to take a safety pin and as small a drop as you could get of this, it's kinda gooey like honey, and you were to put that on your hand, you're dead in 15 minutes."

What IF the army was measuring the wrong layer of hydrolysate in the tank after they take the teeth out of the chemical weapon in Indiana? What if there was deadly chemical that was being transported from Indiana all the way to the incineration facility near Port Arthur, Texas? What if it then made its way through the inferno that is the incinerator? What IF tiny particles of VX could leave the stacks, bind with soot and be carried into unsuspecting lungs?

Sommer walked us a few hundred yards from his adobe house near Galveston bay. From this spot, he pointed one way, then another, to all the environmental hazards in the area. He pointed in the direction of a BP refinery that was the sight of a major explosion a few years ago. He noted the location of other nearby refineries. As calm as the water in the bay seemed that morning, you got the impression that mother nature had absorbed more than her fair share of man-made disasters here.

Our next stop to the Veolia facility where the hydrolysate is disposed of was just as eye opening. At the heart of the plant, which sits a few miles outside of Port Arthur, is a massive rolling metal tube that seems big enough to hold a school bus. Inside the tube are all sorts of substances meeting their fiery end. Fed onto a conveyer belt is everything from boxes of makeup samples far past their expiration date when they may have helped someone look better, to vats of industrial and commercial wastes and sometimes VX.

When you walk through the control room, you realize that incineration has come a long way from a burning pile of old tires and trash in the back woods. Three to four workers are seated in front of large flat panel computer screens which measure the chemical contents going into the kiln, coming out of the smoke stack and almost everywhere in between. Kilns are fueled by some of the very substances that they're getting paid to dispose. So by knowing exactly at what temperature each substance can be destroyed at and what temperature the impact of those substances will have, the controllers can destroy even more at that raised temperature. Think of it as an odd kind of cooking operation, where people watch the oven and mix a combination of ingredients to keep it at the right temperature.

According to the plant manager, the computer systems are designed to automatically slow the kiln or stop it when the system detects emissions above government allowed limits.

We spoke with plant manager Mitch Osborne about why he isn't worried about how the hydrolysate is being disposed.

"We've had several consultants, a PHD that worked for the national research council that wrote several of the reports about chemical agents come in and look at the process, look at our facility from stem to stern, from the face of the kiln all the way to the stack and verify for us that our unit and the controls that we have in place destroyed the miniscule parts per billion level or less that's present in these materials.

"We've been to Newport, we've seen the procedures, we've looked at the protocols. We've had discussions with the Indiana dept. of environmental management which heavily regulates the Newport facility as well as we've had direct discussions with the centers for disease control to make sure that we were comfortable before we ever began formal negotiations on the contract.

"That's why back in January we started discussions with our political community, our regulators with TCEQ as well as various community leaders that we interacted with; an advisory group as well as knowing them to make sure that they understood what we were about to get involved in because this is more of an emotional issue than it is a chemical and science issue."

Mr. Osborne is matter of fact, calm, and, considering that he has been through the press spin cycle before, just trying to get someone to listen to his side of the story. He walks you by the tanks where the hydrolysate is stored, shows you where the trucks come in, walks you by the kiln, through the control room and even offers to show you the small alligator that has taken up residence in the facility's front pond.

Before I forget, this is gator country. Our camera and sound guys had pulled over to get a few shots, and they spotted little baby gators in the ditch nearby. Most self-respecting eateries including Esther's has some or all parts of a gator on the menu.

If you ever drive by an incinerator, the white plumes you see rising are likely steam from the cooling tower. The stuff that is horrible if breathed is almost invisible. Most chemical outputs are measured in parts per billion, and are hardly ever visible.

Our final stop was to Hilton Kelley- a community activist who grew up in Port Arthur, detoured through an acting career and found his way back to his hometown. He is one of the vocal forces leading the charge against the pollution that surrounds his community.

"We have to do something to sort of curb the amount of toxicities that are coming from these facilities. We shouldn't encourage other industries to bring their wastes here until we deal with the waste we presently have at this time. At the rate we're going now, we're going to be receiving all types of military waste simply because we've allowed Veolia to burn this waste coming from Indiana from the United States army, this vx nerve gas hydrolosate.

"Its not fair. Port Arthur Texas is disproportionately being impacted because everybody wants to bring their waste here because it is the area of least resistance. It's a blue collar community, and its time for people to stop taking advantage of this community and bring that stuff elsewhere.

"Do not disproportionately impact our community , we have lives here, we have kids here we have family here, and we deserve a better quality of life than what we are getting form the united states."

This isn't a case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) because as one of the most polluted places in the country according to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups, Port Arthur has picked up more than its fair share of the country's waste.

link to the toxics release inventory for Jefferson County Texas

You can understand Hilton's frustration and feel for anyone who raises their children in this place. Surprisingly there are very few if any scientific and long term studies gauging the health impacts of the environment here.

Port Arthur is not a wealthy place. The average household income in 2005 was $27,000. The corner store we stopped at was filled with products that were expired (which our crew discovered to our dismay after we had driven a few miles down the road and tasted the food and drinks). At the end of the row of the housing projects Mr. Kelley grew up in, you can see the plumes and the pipes of the refinery next door.

I've only seen communities where neighborhoods were this close to heavy industry in developing countries like India. I remember spending summers in Mumbai at a cousin's place that sat across from a horrible factory that billowed out black smoke. The soot from those stacks would land right on the balconies of my cousin's flat. We were kids, we didn't know better. Most of the adults who lived there were intentionally kept in the dark about what was in the air they breathed. The adults who knew better, and were rich enough, lived elsewhere.

Then there is the army. They gave us their statement and they are sticking to it: no more, no less.

"The U.S. Army takes public safety, employee protection and environmental stewardship very seriously … The shipment of hydrolysate to the Veolia facility in Port Arthur and its destruction has been done effectively, safely and successfully."

The Army apparently does not want to address concerns about how the government measures the emissions or why the community wasn't extended the same courtesy of notification that other communities have been extended on camera with CBS News. Not clarifying is often a way to avoid guilt, but it's not a good way to prove innocence.

These stories remind me of the world that lies between the fabulous coasts of the United States. Decisions made in D.C. usually have the most impact on everyone besides the decision makers. Whether it be the minutiae of parts per billion clean air standards buried deep in environmental legislation, or how the military honors its treaty agreements, or the impact foreign policy decisions have on the price of oil, its the people in places like Port Arthur that literally keep the engine fueled. But at what price?

More links:

U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency

Chemical Weapons Working Group