VX schedule shaky

Patricia L. Pastore

Terre Haute Tribune-Star
July 15, 2003

NEWPORT, IN -- The Army and the contractor it has hired to destroy the deadly nerve agent VX must overcome two challenges for neutralization of the chemical stockpile at Newport to stay on schedule.

Currently, Army officials are refining the neutralization process to meet Army safety standards. The testing is occurring off site.

As of Monday, the Army had not met its 20 parts VX per billion requirement when conducting neutralization tests, said Jeff Brubaker, project manager at the Newport Chemical Agent Disposal Facility.

Neutralization is slated to begin in October

The majority of the VX stockpile contains a stabilizing agent that leaves more VX in its byproduct than the 20 parts per billion allowed by Army standards.

In addition to continued work on the neutralization process, Army and Parsons Inc. officials are forming contingency plans in case the hydrolysate can't be shipped to Ohio. The Army contracted Parsons to build and operate the neutralization facility.

Neutralizing VX is expected to produce about 1 million gallons of hydrolysate, a highly alkaline substance, described as being similar to drain pipe cleaner. The chemical is slated to be transported to Perma-Fix, a commercial hazardous waste treatment facility in Dayton, Ohio.

There, Perma-Fix will process the hydrolysate in its biotreatment facility before discharging it in the city's sewer treatment plant.

Citizens in Ohio oppose the plans and are attempting to stop transportation from the depot in Vermillion County to their community. The Ohio opposition is growing, according to news reports from the Dayton Daily News.

If the two major challenges are not soon met, the October start date could be at risk, said Army spokeswoman Terry Arthur, speaking about "Project Speedy Neut."

"If everything goes exactly right, October is still a good date," Arthur said. "Parsons and the Army are conducting continuous, around-the-clock efforts to stay on schedule. There are many variables. Our commitment is we won't go on line or ship hydrolysate if it is unsafe."

Army officials, along with representatives from Parsons Inc., will discuss the issues with residents of Vermillion County tonight.

No hydrolysate will be shipped until the Army is satisfied it will not jeopardize public safety.

"The Army's commitment remains to ship hydrolysate only if it is confirmed to contain no detectable quantities of VX," Brubaker said.

Army safety standards stipulate 20 parts per billion, while Indiana regulations allow as much as 230 parts per billion detection in the hydrolysate.

Brubaker said he believes the Army standard is "extremely conservative."

"It doesn't matter," he said. "It is an Army standard and that is all that matters. They made a commitment to the people."

Five different scientific organizations are working with Parsons to reduce the small amount of VX left in the hydrolysate to meet the government's limits, Brubaker said.

When VX was manufactured at Newport, two types of stabilizers were added to the nerve agent.

About 14 percent of the VX stockpile contains a type of stabilizer the Army has successfully neutralized, meeting Army standards.

However, the bulk of the VX stockpile -- 85 percent -- was stabilized in a different manner.

Testing will continue on this VX to determine the best way to neutralize it. Results could be available by the end of July, Brubaker said.

Meanwhile, Parsons officials also are looking at building an on-site hydrolysate storage facility, known as a tank farm. The chemical would be stored there until it could be further treated at a later time.

The contingency plan is being considered in case the hydrolysate can't be transported to Ohio for treatment.

Currently, temporary storage tanks inside the neutralization facility can hold about 30,000 gallons of the byproduct -- the amount generated after three or four weeks into neutralization.

The farm would ensure the continuation of Operation Speedy Neut, the accelerated plan to destroy VX nearly three years ahead of schedule, chief environmental engineer Glen Shonkwiler has said.

U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh is closely monitoring operations at Newport.

Bayh has been in touch with Department of Defense representatives, the senator's spokesman, Mark Kornblau, said Monday.

"The Department of Defense continues to assure Sen. Bayh that we are on schedule for the safe and accelerated neutralization of VX stored at Newport," Kornblau said. "There are bound to be some ups and downs along the way, but as of today, we were assured they are still on track."