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Update - December,  2001

 

 

The Corpus Christi Experiment

VX Hydrolysate disposal, an update

Strictly speaking, the hydrolysate disposed of in Corpus Christi (across from the Elliot Landfill on Greenwood Drive) is not a nerve gas or agent but the resultant of a process to neutralize VX nerve agents now called a hydrolysate or VX Hydrolysate. Still nasty stuff but not anywhere near as harmful as the raw VX agent, by orders of magnitude. This assumes the truthfulness of the Army’s contractor, now bankrupt; that the hydrolysate was processed and disposed of without incident and that none of the 10,000 gallons of hydrolysate reverted back to an active agent. All these processed fluids and salts now reside in a Class I toxic injection well and will eventually wind its way into the seabed some 5,000 feet under the Gulf of Mexico.

VX is a heavy fluid, the consistency of syrup, which the Army had intended to place on the ground to prevent humans from using the territory covered with VX. When ingested through the skin or lungs incapacitation or death follows quickly. As a weapon this agent was not very valuable as our own troops could be affected by it as well. The Army abandoned the use of most tactical nerve agents in the early sixties with the exception of defoliants such as Agent Orange.

The United States is storing some 28,000 ton containers of VX in Utah and Indiana and in lesser amounts in several other locations. Congress has forbidden the transportation of all nerve agents across State lines so disposal must be done in place. In Utah the planned disposal method is incineration. In Indiana it is chemical neutralization.

The Army has previously stated that the Corpus Christi experiment was being conducted to prove up a 1/10 scale-engineering model of a portion of the plant designed for the chemical neutralization process. This experiment in Corpus Christi was intended to facilitate a full scale plant to be built in Newport, Indiana to dispose of 1,200 ton containers of VX located there each containing ~1,900 lbs of agent.

As reported previously (see the Sierra Club web site and in an article first printed in the Corpus Christi Observer in September 2000) some 9,000 or so gallons of hydrolysate was processed in an experimental SCWO (Super Critical Water Oxidation Reactor) and injected in the existing Class I toxic waste disposal well located on the same property as the SCWO reator. The hydrolysate can be categorized as a sort of toxic soup or slop that is the end result of mixing VX Nerve Agents with sodium hydroxide (oven cleaner) in a low temperature low pressure vessel (mixing pot) to neutralize the VX agent. In fact this neutralization changes the very nature of the chemical bonds so that it no longer resembles the original material. After the VX is chemically neutralized, the resultant mix must then be further processed before it can be safely disposed of. The SWCO reactor is a high pressure, high temperature reactor that converts the hydrolysate to water and toxic heavy salts. If the process is successful the water can be processed in municipal water treatment plants and the heavy salts disposed of in approved toxic landfills.

The really nasty part of this experimental process (neutralizing VX agents) was done at the government storage and disposal facility in Tooele, Utah where some 800+ tons of VX agents are stored awaiting disposal. We estimate that less than 500 lbs of VX was mixed with 9,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide and water and shipped by truck to Corpus Christi in December of 1999 in ~200 forty five gallon double walled plastic barrels.

The SCWO reactor itself is a portable plant that was manufactured in California. It was trucked to Corpus Christi where it was suppose to begin a three month experiment due to be completed in April of 2000. This was not to be the case.

To recap, the plan was to neutralize experimental quantities of VX agent in Tooele, Utah and ship the resultant hydrolysate almost 1,500 miles to Corpus Christi. The Army then manufactured the SCWO reactor consisting of four trailers of equipment on skids, in California and shipped it 1,200 miles to Corpus Christi. The experimental results, if any, would be used to build a plant in Newport, Indiana almost 1,000 miles any from Corpus Christi.

As it turned out the low-pressure VX neutralization vessel system in Tooele developed fatal problems and the full 12,000 gallons of processed hydrolysate was never shipped due to these problems. The SCWO reactor itself was unsuitable for the process due to either faulty engineering or basic science or both. One of the problems with the SCWO was with the platinum reactor vessel liner. The liner kept failing. As a result the whole experiment was delayed at least a year. Other problems lie in the basic design of the SCWO reactor system itself which was plagued by the build up of heavy salts in the feed tubing. In addition it would appear that the experiment itself was flawed in that the Corpus Christi unit was not designed to replicate the eventual plant and therefore the results provided marginal guidance for the design of the Newport facility. These potential problems were all pointed out in a National Research Council (NRC) review dating back almost four years and apparently ignored.

Even the Army and their consultants now admit that the Corpus Christi experiment was something less than a total success and of little use in solving the problems of agent disposal at the Newport Arsenal. It was an expensive boondoggle and was totally un necessary to have exposed Corpus Christi citizens to this toxic intrusion.

No one really knows the makeup and content of the processed VX hydrolysate fluids poured into the deep injection Class I well on Greenwood Drive. As a consequence this toxic soup will eventually reside in the seabed under Corpus Christi and perhaps migrate to the West Coast of Florida in the next millennium. There have been no proper reports published on the outcome of the experiment for outside peer review. The Army has been critical of the results but the details are hidden someplace out of sight.

There were some early indicators that the VX Hydrolysate processed in Tooele had higher quantities of raw VX than expected. Every fifth batch was re run through the low pressure cooker because of this anomaly. When asked if the batches of hydrolysate were tested again upon arrival in Corpus Christi the answer was no.

When asked further what fluids were injected in our well the contactor keeps insisting that only salt water was poured into the injection well. This statement is inconsistent with the NRC reports which said the resultant of the SCWO is water and toxic salts. Could it be that the term "salt water" as used by the contactor really means, "toxic salts mixed with water"? Of course whatever was put down the well cannot be retrieved as it has been mixed with other toxic chemicals which are disposed of every week in this well.

The reasons this experiment was located in Corpus Christi are several. First the federal government unilaterally declared that the VX Hydrolysate could be shipped across State lines once the first stage of the neutralization process was complete. This appears to be a violation of the intent of the Congressional mandate. Second our State and local officials and politicians took a "deer caught in the headlights" type position when confronted with this flawed and un-necessary endeavor. Third, this deadly cocktail was shipped here because of the lax political climate and a Texas Toxic Legacy, which literally translated means they can get away with it here. It is not likely that the politicians would have allowed this experiment in West Coast States or in the Northeast outside of secure government installations.

It appears on the surface that this whole processes was started and continued by inept bureaucrats who had $10 million or so of the taxpayer’s money to play with. I have met many of the scientists and engineers at the operating level and can tell you that individually they are bright and dedicated people. The failure is at the management and planning stages and at the political level, particularly at the State and Local level. Not one voice was raised in question or probe this experiment.

The disposal contactor is or was mostly managed by public relations people. They are experts at spinning any failure until it almost looks good. Besides wasting a lot of money they may have caused a lot of harm.

In conclusion, the concept or theory of using a SCWO reactor to finish the low-pressure neutralization process is fundamentally valid. The engineering failure here is setting back the national effort to rid this country of stocks of nerve agents and gas. This failure will not only delay our agent disposal timetable but will also aggravate an already serious storage problem not to mention further exposure to tampering and possible illegal use of these stocks.

Second, the Mayor, City Manager and the Council, by keeping silent, have sent a message to industry and the public that it is alright o pollute Corpus Christi with the worst kinds of toxins. Is this the message we wish to project?

This project should never have been allowed to come to Corpus Christi in the first place. Tooele, Utah is an ideal site for this type of experimentation for a variety of technical, scientific and political reasons.

The Mayor and the Council should insist that the SCWO reactor be packed up and sent to Tooele, Utah or Newport, Indiana as soon as possible and the job be finished there and done right. This needs to be done immediately.

There is no good ending in sight to this story. Corpus Christi is now stuck with this potential problem and it will take more taxpayer money to clean up the land and correct the issues. The money is minor compared to risking our citizens to exposure of these toxins.

Post Script……. The contactor responsible for this fiasco has filed for bankruptcy and most if not all of their employees have been laid off. Is it now possible that the taxpayers will have to assume the contractors responsibilities and pay to clean up this mess even though the contactor has already been paid. Money isn’t the real issue, human costs are and the fact that our politicians aren’t even concerned enough to intervene on the public’s interests.

Article published in the January 22, 2000 edition of the Coastal Bend Sun
(Letter to The Caller-Times follows  the article)


Should This City Be the Waste Dump
for Chemical Weapons Residue?

Hazardous effects of chemical weapons derivative
have not been fully disclosed -

                                                                by Bill Alling

I am concerned that all of the facts surrounding the shipment and local processing and disposal of a so called harmless chemical weapons derivative, which the Army and their local contractor have termed harmless wastewater or saltwater, has been hidden and not fully disclosed.  At issue is the ultimate disposal of VX Hydrolysate right here in Corpus Christi - downwind from the city and within breathing distance of residential subdivisions and active farm land.  The people have a right to know all the facts surrounding this experimental project for which they are an unwitting participant.  The problem is further deepened by the absurd remarks by the Mayor and the City Manager i.e., "he feels at ease with the project," "not worried" and "they meet all the licensure requirements."  The issues are immediate and potentially very serious to some of our citizens and to the community as a whole.

A few of the facts concerning this harmless project include: the chemical VX is one of the most toxic agents and is designed to quickly kill those that come in contact with it.  The chemical EA-2192, an interim by product of the neutralization reaction, is a dangerous nerve toxin. The SCWO system (this stands for Super Critical Water Oxidation) must be disposed of in a suitable hazardous waste facility.  VX hydrolysate raises several challenges - among them are corrosion problems associated with the fluid streams and salt deposits.  Using SCWO to treat VX hydrolysate is significantly different and more complex than previous applications.    Additional development and pilot scale testing of SCWO technology will be necessary to ensure sustained, reliable operation of a full scale integerated treatment system. Because the understanding of fundatmental processes is limited and the process operational data and experience are sparse, empirical design and engineering judgment will be required.....  Alkaline VX hydrolysate and its destructive products under SCWO reaction conditions create an extremely corrosive and erosive environment that requires the careful selection of materials for construction. Lastly, testing to date has been limited to surrogate substitutes and very little testing has been done on VX Hydrolysate.

The above facts and findings are from a 1998 National Research Council paper entitled Using Supercritical Water Oxidation to Treat Hydrolysate from VX Neutralization which was commissioned by the US Army.  Obviously the NRC does not present as glowing or glossed over an account of the potential problems and dangers involved as did the recent local publicity on this subject.  The National Research Council is part of the National Academy of Sciences which is the Nation's premier government think tank and draws on the top level expertise from academia and industry from a broad cross section of the Americas.

Interested parties can obtain a copy of the full NRC paper off the internet at http://books.nap.edu/books/0309068827/html/1.html

The commercial companies involved admit that they know of no later work on this subject than the 1998 NRC report. While it is possible that the Army has solved all the problems identified in this report since it was published, that seems open to question. Common sense would say that if the Hydrolysate is as innocuous as it is claimed to be then it needn't be shipped in double barrel containers from Utah.  The experimental plant for Corpus Christi is being manufactured in San Diego and trucked here for a three month test. If the end prodcut is harmless saltwater then why does it have to be injected almost 5,000 feet underground.  Finally, the process (if successful) will be carried out in chemical storage facilities located in Indiana, Colorado and Arkansas. Why Corpus Christi? Something does not ring true here.

Compounding this potential problem is that the Army admits in another NRC Report that their quality control and safety at the Utah processing facility is not good as it should be.  If they admit it it must be a lot worse and Corpus Christi is on the receiving end.
The Mayor recently asked why Corpus Christi isn't growing like the rest of the Nation. Could it be that our growth industry is hazardous and toxic waste disposal. Nueces County is something like 21st in the country in this nasty business and moving up on the ladder. Is growth in toxic waste sites compatible with growth in other sectors. Probably not.
If the Mayor, City Manager lived on Greenwood Drive, perhaps they would not feel as comfortable with this project as they profess.  There is already one lawsuit against this disposal facility by the homeowners about which not much is known because of a Court imposed gag order. This is a shame as the lack of information hurts us all.

The information flow on this entire project has been too little too late and that which was made available has been bady hyped and mishandled.  One can only hope that we do not have another "Love Canal" right here in our back yard or that we will continue to welcome and be the waste dump for chemical weapons residue.

Sadly, the effects of this waste material on future generations of babies can not be forecasted with certainty. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are wrong. In past generations - other bright scientists and public relations specialists have also assured us that there was nothing to worry about only to find out later that they were wrong and that a terrible price was paid. These bright men and women who now say that the current process is safe do so with good intentions as well.  They say the end result is as safe as drinking water but usually don't tell you that the chemicals are still there - rather they have just reached the limit of modern equipment to detect the VX or other particulate - but they are still there.

The City should file suit to block this plan until it can be fully aired and discussed by the citizens and particularly those that will be the subject of this experiment.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR
15-DEC-99
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times
820 Lower Broadway
Corpus Christi, TX 78401
(This letter was not published by The Caller-Times)

I am appalled by the content of your article, "US Army Shipping Wastewater," which concerns the chemical disposal of VX Hydrolysate at Corpus Christi. The Caller-Times has slanted or mis-stated the facts to present the story in a way to make this waste disposal issue politically acceptable and to discourage public debate. You have an obligation to report all the facts and the peole have a right to know the facts which they are not getting from your paper in this instance. The problem is further deepened by the arrogant remarks by the Mayor and the City Manger i.e., "he feels at ease with the project," "not worried" and "they meet all the licensure requirements." This is potentially very serious to some of our citizens and they deserve better leadership than what is being shown.

A few of the facts you missed in your article include: VX is one of the most toxic chemical agents.  The chemical EA-2192, an interim by product of the neutralization reaction, is a dangerous nerve toxin. The solution developed in the fourth process in the SCWO system (to be done in Corpus Christi) must be disposed of in a suitable hazardous waste facility. VX hydrolysate raises several challenges among them are corrosion problems associated with the fluid streams and salt deposits.  Using SCWO to treat VX hydrolysate is significantly different and more complex than previous applications. Additional development and pilot scale testing of SCWO technology will be necessary to ensure sustained, reliable operation of a full scale integrated treatment system. Because the understanding of fundamental processes is limited and the process operational data and experience are sparse, empirical design and engineering judgment will be required...Alkaline VX hydrolysate and its destructive products under SCWO reaction conditions create an extremely corrosive and erosive environment that requires the careful materials of construction.

The above facts and concerns are from a 1998 National Research Council paper entitled Using Supercritical Water Oxidation to Treat Hydrolysate from VX Neutralization which was commissioned by the US Army.  Obviously the NRC did not present as glowing or glossed over an account of the potential dangers involved as did your paper.

Perhaps the companies you rely on for information in your article have solved all the problems since this report was published but that seems open to question. Common sense would say that if the Hydrolysate is as innocuous as it is claimed it to be be then it needn't be shipped in double barrel containers.  Also, if the end product is harmless seawater then why does it have to be injected almost 5,000 feet underground. Something does not ring true here.

Compounding this potential problem is that the Army admits in another NRC Report that their quality control and safety at the Utah processing facility is not as good as it should be. If they admit it, it must be a lot worse and Corpus Christi is on the receiving end.

Perhaps the Mayor, City Manger and his staff and the council ought to move to Greenwood Drive and display a little leaderhsip in this matter.  If not, then the City should file suit to block this plan until it can be fully aired and discussed by the citizens and particularly those that will be the subject of this experiment.

         W.R. [Bill] Alling