By Dwight Ott and Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writers
CARNEYS POINT, N.J. - Army and DuPont Co. officials assured skeptical residents last night that it would be safe to destroy stockpiles of highly lethal chemicals and bring the waste to South Jersey to be treated and discharged into the Delaware River.
But residents and environmentalists balked at the plan to dump more than 1,200 tons of VX nerve agent - now stored in Indiana - into the river, which provides them with drinking water.
"They put on a good show, but I don't understand why they don't keep it in Indiana," said Norm Cohen, a coordinator of the Unplug Salem Campaign, a network of environmental organizations. "We already have nuclear plants dumping tons into the Delaware."
Army Col. Jesse Barber told more than 200 people at Penns Grove High School that the proposal "is safe and can be done without damaging the environment."
"This is the right thing to do for the country," he said. "When you look at terrorism, it underscores the need... . The greatest risk is the continued storage of such agents."
The Army has 30 days to take more public input before deciding whether to award a contract to a DuPont facility in Salem County to do the work.
A second public meeting is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at Delaware Technical and Community College's conference center in downtown Wilmington.
Todd Owens, a DuPont chemical engineer, said tests had been done on the disposal of the nerve agent byproduct, but acknowledged that "this is the first time that it's ever been done on this scale."
But, he said, the plant, DuPont's Chambers Works Secure Environmental Treatment Unit in Deepwater, is using a similar process on a byproduct of mustard gas from Aberdeen, Md.
The Army plans to neutralize the odorless, tasteless VX nerve agent, which can kill on contact, by mixing it with sodium hydroxide. The resulting liquid would be mixed with hot water and sent to the Deepwater facility, which would treat the water again before releasing it into the river.
The nerve agent could be trucked into New Jersey via one of two routes - through Ohio and Pennsylvania along Interstate 80 and then down the New Jersey Turnpike, or through West Virginia and Maryland - and some of the gas could be brought by rail.
Environmentalists at last night's meeting said that the byproduct would be dumped into the Delaware near Wilmington, and that tidal waters could move the discharge upriver.
They also expressed concern about the impact on marine life near the Delaware Bay, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. They said the discharge point is 100 miles upriver from the mouth of the Atlantic.
Amy Simmerman, a representative of U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), said Andrews opposes the dumping and would prefer that the nerve agent be processed in Indiana.
"The disposal of our chemical weapons is right and necessary. But this plan would dispose of these wastes in the wrong place and in the wrong way," she said.
Simmerman said Andrews would work with state, local and federal officials to defeat the plan.
Other sources for this story: http://www.greenlink.org/public/hotissues/vx32.html