Deteriorating national stockpiles of demilitarized chemical agents pose preventable public health dangers

September 20, 2000

Deteriorating stockpiles of the nation's demilitarized chemical agents not only have released chemicals in far greater quantities than were released during an incident last spring in Tooele, Utah, but continue to pose a public health risk, according to David S. Kosson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University.

"Deterioration of the stockpile has resulted in many leaks of chemical agents and releases of chemical agents to the atmosphere during the storage of the obsolete weapons," Kosson said in remarks prepared for testimony at a Thursday, Sept. 21, hearing of the subcommittee on military procurement of the House Armed Services Committee. "These releases of chemical agents have been as much as one million times more than the release of chemical agents which occurred in Tooele, Utah."

The purpose of the hearing was to review investigations of an accidental release of VX nerve agent from the exhaust stack of one of the incinerators at the demilitarized chemical facility at Tooele that took place on May 8-9, 2000. The subcommittee is considering ways to prevent other such incidents at U.S. chemical stockpile facilities around the nation.

Kosson, who chaired the National Research Council's Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal for two years, reported that the committee has repeatedly provided guidance to federal authorities responsible for the facilities and has outlined clear steps to reduce the threat to workers and neighboring populations.

"The stockpile committee has repeatedly endorsed incineration, with comprehensive air pollution control systems and safety systems, as a safe and effective method for destroying chemical agents and munitions. The other critical component is the people - the workers, training, procedures, safety systems, management and oversight employed to make the chosen technology work in a safe and effective manner. Various reviews of the accident leading to these hearings indicate that shortcomings in both the technology and human systems resulted in the release of chemical agent," he said.

The NRC committee has recommended that the nation's stockpile storage and disposal facilities develop a comprehensive and integrated risk management program to protect the public, employees and the environment. However, "no comprehensive, integrated program for managing risks or communicating them to workers and nearby residents has been established or implemented," Kosson said. Kosson further stated that the government's recent reorganization of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program has resulted in fragmented management, noting that emergency response at Tooele is split among at least two Army commands.

"There may be considerable benefit in examining the set of chemical events that have occurred to date to look for commonalities in causes and to seek effective responses to reduce the potential for future chemical events," Kosson said.

"It is important to recognize a very positive track record on behalf of the chemical stockpile disposal program," Kosson noted. "To date more than 6,500 tons of chemical agents from more than 950,000 munitions and containers have been destroyed."
Kosson is the chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt University

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