(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
The United States signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention agreement, which obligated the US to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. That is another story. Here we follow a particular 250,000 gallon store of VX nerve agent from its warehouse in Indiana to its destruction an incinerator in Port Arthur, Texas.
The Port Arthur story is one of abject poverty. The major industry there is petrochemical, and the effects are overwhelming. In fact, the area surrounding Port Arthur is known to environmentalists as the cancer belt of Texas. Let us discover why it is no surprise that the VX ended up in this community.
Photo by Hilton Kelley
When this stockpile of VX got marked for destruction, there was an early plan to dispose of the wastewater in Ohio. That got opposed by the area residents, so more proposals followed. There was one attempt, in fact, to arrange for permission to dispose of the waste at a plant on the Delaware River, but senators, congressmen, governors, and citizens worked together to quash all of those projects. The final plan to move the waste to Texas was quieter, though. Neither the Army nor the company hired to burn the waste notified the Port Arthur community about their intentions before the project was set in motion.
When the Army disposed of this VX store, it first neutralized the chemical into by products they claimed were no more hazardous than kitchen cleaner. Not surprisingly, however, watchdog groups found that the waste water still contained some intact VX and the concern was that molecules could escape through an incinerator smokestack.
A chemical-weapons facility in Indiana is destroying obsolete weapons containing VX nerve agent, producing caustic wastewater that the Army is shipping to Veolia Environmental Services for incineration. The Army has claimed the waste is no more dangerous than kitchen cleaners. But when environmental scientists began looking at the disposal process, they found scary scenarios. The “neutralized” waste still contains some VX, and the incinerators might not destroy all of it. There are no monitors on the incinerator smokestacks to sound the alert if it isn’t eliminated. And VX components in the water could reconstitute in shipping tanks under certain conditions, endangering lives along the transportation route.
The Army continuted to claim that the waste water was safe, because they hypersaturated it with sodium hydroxide to prohibit VX reformation. But Hilton Kelley says that these reports were false, and that the wastewater was known to be more toxic than they claimed:
Individuals at the site, who wish to remain anonymous, have conveyed detailed information to the CWWG (Chemical Weapons Working Group) alleging that reformation of VX has occurred during storage leading to higher concentrations than are being relayed to the public and emergency responders.
Long story short, the citizens of Port Arthur lost this battle, in spite of getting help from groups like Sierra Club and CWWG. The community stuggled to stop the VX waste from coming to their door, but in the end they lacked the resources to do anything about it.
This is just one story about Port Arthur. The truth is that this area is a de facto dumping ground for toxic chemical by products — their real problem is the powerlessness that comes with poverty. That, and the fact that the petrochemical industry is the only significant source of money in the region. Surrounded by refineries and chemical plants, Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange Texas have the highest rate of cancer incidence in the state. The who live near the chemical plants are overwhelmingly non-white and extraordinarily poor.
The above clip is an overview from an interactive slide show (Dallas Morning News circa 2007) that focused on poverty in Texas called The Bottom Line. At about 2:15 in this clip, they talk about Port Arthur and the surrounding communities directly. When you’ve seen that, follow the link to The Bottom Line and watch the slideshow entitled Pollution/Healthcare. In it you will learn about the hopelessness that Port Arthur faces. People die of cancer and respiratory illness without access to healthcare. Their air and water are poisoned with carcinogens, but they are powerless to do anything about it. Powerless because they have no resources to help them, and they have nowhere else to go.
The Pollution/Healthcare slideshow conveys the issue pretty well. In one instance, after a series of spills, a representative from a chemical company went door to door offering the residents $500 in exchange for waiving their right to sue for damages. The company claimed they would pay their medical bills, as well. Of course, that didn’t apply to anyone who was already sick. One is left to wonder how a resident could prove that their condition was caused by that spill…
The people in Port Arthur face a complex juxtaposition of human rights issues. Here we have health care, environment, economy — the complex problems the powerless face when power is concentrated in the hands of the unregulated corporate elite. It will take the best heads and much work on a combination of issues to produce much hope for these folks. Will you help?
Crossposted from EcoJustice at Orange