A coalition of environmental groups including the Texas Sierra Club has formed to stop shipments of hazardous waste that include the deadly nerve agent VX to Port Arthur, Texas. The waste, trucked in from an Army chemical weapons facility in Indiana, is being burned at an incinerator (below) run by Veolia Environmental Services near a poor, overwhelmingly minority Port Arthur neighborhood.
Photo by Chris Hartman
The Army claims the waste has already been "neutralized" before it leaves Indiana, and is no more dangerous than kitchen cleaners. But when scientists began examining the disposal process, they found the neutralized waste still contains VX, which is so potentially lethal a drop the size of a pinhead can be fatal.
Photo by Hilton Kelley
This April, the Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA), a citizen group dedicated to fighting toxic pollution in Port Arthur, held a rally (above and below) to protest the shipments of VX to the Veolia facility. (Local community activist and CIDA Executive Director Hilton Kelley is pictured in second photo below, speaking at that rally.)
Photo by Hilton Kelley
This spring, the Sierra Club became a plaintiff with CIDA, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Citizens Against Incineration, and individuals in Indiana and Port Arthur in filing a notice of intent to sue, prompting the Army to temporarily halted shipments until the issue was heard in federal court in July. Lone Star Chapter staffer and clean air specialist Neil Carman, PhD, testified for the Club at the court injunction in Indianapolis to try and stop the VX shipments. But even after an Army representative admitted under oath that VX is present in the waste being trucked to Port Arthur, a federal judge in Indiana ruled in August that the shipments could continue.
In response, the coalition including the Sierra Club held a press conference in Austin on August 23 to urge regulators to halt the shipments administratively. (Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, is pictured below at microphone, flanked by Hilton Kelley and Neil Carman, at that press conference.) The event, at which Kelley and Carman also spoke, garnered extensive media coverage and prompted the EPA's Environmental Justice Division to start investigating the situation.
Photo by Geoffrey Castro
The Army previously tried to ship the waste to Ohio and New Jersey, but public outcry in both states scuttled those plans. In approaching Port Arthur, the Army attempted to fly below the radar. Since they are required by law to notify the public and get input from affected communities, the Army informed Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz of their plan to truck the VX residue through eight states to Port Arthur. Ortiz, who is serving his last term in office, did not notify his constituents, and the Army quietly signed a $49 million contract with Veolia to incinerate two million gallons of waste at the Port Arthur facility.
But community activists and environmental groups in Texas and Indiana soon realized what was afoot, and insiders at the Army's Indiana chemical weapons disposal facility blew the whistle, alerting the Chemical Weapons Working Group. Craig Williams told Texas-based journalist Rusty Middleton the arrangement is "the most covert, underhanded approach to disposal in the history of the [Army's] disposal program."
His sentiments are echoed by Carman, who formerly worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and is now Conservation Program Coordinator for the Texas Sierra Club. He says that even under normal, permitted circumstances, the Veolia incinerator puts out substantial amounts of harmful emissions, but in this case, the VX emissions are entirely unmonitored, a state of affairs he calls "unconscionable."
Veolia claims that monitoring individual hazardous wastes is unnecessary and would be a waste of money. But it is perhaps no coincidence that the VX disposal operation is taking place near one of the poorest, most polluted communities in the nation. As Middleton reported in the Texas Observer, the whites who have stayed in Port Arthur have mostly left the neighborhood near the Veolia facility and other chemical plants, leaving it to Hispanics and African Americans who are among the poorest residents of Texas.
At the April rally organized by CIDA in Port Arthur, Hilton Kelley accused Mayor Ortiz of sacrificing public health for the property taxes paid to the city by polluters. Ortiz countered in the press that Kelley was a "clown and a loser" and dismissed the Sierra Club as "a bunch of environmental wackos."
The Club and its allies plan to appeal the August court decision allowing VX shipments and incineration to proceed. Carman says he doesn't know if the coalition will be able to stop the already "neutralized" VX awaiting shipment to Port Arthur, but he is heartened that the issue is finally on the radar of the public and the EPA. "This is an important moment to expose the hazardous waste incineration that has been going on in Port Arthur since the 1980s," he says. "VX nerve gas waste should not be burned. The Army must spend the money for the safer disposal options that are currently available and not incinerate it right next to a low-income community of color."
A large public protest is being planned by the coalition on Saturday, September 29, in Port Arthur.
Learn more about the Sierra Club's work on toxics and Environmental Justice.
Photos used with permission.