Saturday, April 26, 2003

Waste disposal plan angers residents

'Environmental injustice' claim filed

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

DAYTON, Ohio - Residents who want to stop the Army from using their neighborhood to dispose of hazardous waste produced by destroying a deadly nerve agent are using the community's racial and economic makeup as a weapon.

The Army plans to transport hydrolysate - a waste byproduct from the neutralization of VX nerve agent - 275 miles from its chemical depot in Newport, Ind., to a private contractor in suburban Jefferson Township for disposal.

VX is so deadly that even a tiny amount of the thick, oily liquid can kill if it is inhaled or comes into contact with skin. The hydrolysate is not deadly, but is considered hazardous waste. Some residents fear that a highway accident, plant mishap, spill, fire or explosion could spew it into their neighborhood.

So they have filed an environmental-justice complaint against the Army and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accusing them of racial and economic discrimination.

A total of 135 such complaints from across the nation have been filed with the EPA. Ninety-five of them have either been dismissed, rejected for investigation, resolved or referred to another agency. Forty complaints are pending.

The Dayton-area residents say the material would be moved from Newport - a rural area where none of the 578 residents is black and few are poor - to a community where 35 percent of the residents are black and 35 percent live below the poverty line.

The complaint invokes former President Clinton's 1994 executive order on environmental justice. The order requires recipients of federal funds to try to avoid projects that disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.

"It's clear that this community qualifies, that this is a community that should be protected," said attorney Ellis Jacobs, who represents the residents. "I don't know how it could be clearer."

Marilyn Daughdrill, spokeswoman for the Army's chemical-materials agency, would not comment on the complaint.

"But we wouldn't even be looking at this option if we didn't think it was a safe way of dealing with the waste material," she said.

Daughdrill said the waste is being taken to Jefferson Township because the contractor - Perma-Fix Environmental Services Inc. - has its disposal facility there. She said Perma-Fix won the contract based on its technical expertise.

Elizabeth Crowe is an organizer for the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea, Ky.-based coalition of about 40 community groups and people who live near chemical-weapons sites. The coalition has pushed for onsite disposal of waste generated by neutralizing chemical weapons.

Crowe said environmental-justice complaints are a way to put the burden on companies to prove that disposal will not harm the community.

Tom Trebonik, Perma-Fix's divisional vice president of compliance, safety and health, described the material as "caustic wastewater." He said it can burn if it touches the skin, but the risk of that is confined to those who handle it.

"The material is very similar to waste materials that are generated in the Dayton area on a routine basis," he said.

The Army is also preparing to destroy chemical weapons at several other sites.

At the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the Army plans to destroy mustard agent and then ship the byproduct 60 miles to a disposal facility in Deepwater, N.J., beginning in May.

Communities near Deepwater don't appear too concerned, said Alan Muller, executive director of Green Delaware, an environmental group based in the area.

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