Army retreats, but VX intentions still veiled

July 6, 2003

Eddie Roth, Commentary
Dayton Daily News

U.S. Army contractors nows are considering alternatives to shipping neutralized VX nerve agent waste to Dayton. That shows that efforts by involved citizens and local officials are having an impact. But the Army continues to be cagey, seemingly incapable of the plain talk owed this community since Day 1 of this sensitive project.

Parsons, Inc., is the international engineering firm hired to neutralize and dispose of the Army's store of deadly VX nerve agent, stockpiled at the Newport Depot in west central Indiana. The plan was to process the VX material there, removing its most deadly characteristics, then ship the caustic waste (called hydrolysate) elsewhere for disposal.

Dayton was identified as a lead destination only because Perma-Fix, Inc., a chemical-waste processor, sought the business for its controversial plant in Jefferson Twp.

The plan presumed the Dayton community wouldn't object. But the Army and its contractors have been ill-prepared to answer the community's tough questions. Now, every local governmental unit to consider the question stands opposed to the plan. This has led Parsons to regroup and consider how to neutralize the VX agent and store the waste at the Newport Depot until better plans can for formulated for its final disposition.

Which is exactly what should have occurred from the start, but the Army stubbornly refuses to admit that. Even with well-founded local opposition, the Army says it's not pulling back from plans to ship the material here.

What the Army can't deny is there are major gaps in its and its contractors' knowledge about the properties of VX hydrolysate and how best to handle it. In the language of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there are both "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" about the short- and long-term health effects of human exposure to this material.

The Army loses credibility and trust when it says it has plans for Dayton. The Army set local acceptance as a condition to the material being brought here--but won't come clean about what precisely that means.

It can't tell the community anything in detail about what will be flushed through Montgomery County's sewer system, because its contractor only now is completing a "demonstration study" on what the hydrolysate will look like once it's run through the local process.

Hasty, uncertain plans. Cryptic communications. This is not the approach that will win the Army the confidence of any community.