America’s Chemical Weapons


In 1991, the Iraqi regime agreed to destroy and stop developing all weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and to prove to the world it has done so by complying with rigorous inspections. Iraq has broken every aspect of this fundamental pledge. United Nations’ inspections also revealed that Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents….”

President George W. Bush to the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2002

Bombs in Bush’s backyard

When Jeff Miskin planted a tree in Spring Valley, a wealthy suburb of Washington DC one day in the summer of 1996, he didn’t expect to be poisoned by a US made chemical weapon. But Jeff Miskin found a toxic surprise buried for 70 years under the lawn of the President of American University.

“I jumped in the hole, and got a face full of whitish, grey smoke,” he explains in a friendly, casual drawl. “It had a kind of acrid, herbal smell. I didn’t feel real well afterwards.” Nor has he since. Miskin’s equipment crushed several old glass vials of lewisite, a deadly chemical that can cause blisters on the skin, blindness and death in doses as low as a few milligrams per cubic meter of air. Miskin reported burns to his face and abnormal swelling at the time of the incident.

At the time, university officials told him not to worry. This has been the consistent message of the US Army with respect to America’s chemical weapons stockpile, the negative image of its grave concerns over Iraqi stockpiles. Washington is not Baghdad.

Spring Valley’s 1200 odd homes sit atop the remains of the American University Experiment Station, where chemical weapons were tested and dumped during WWI. Mustard gas and lewisite contained in rusting old bombs are buried underneath the backyards of some of the most powerful people in the United States; senators, ambassadors, diplomats. Chemical munitions were recently removed from the backyard of the South Korean Ambassador.

While George W. Bush calls for a war on Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons ‘against his own people’ Spring Valley DC is being quietly cleaned of the arsenic residue from the breakdown of lewisite. Community pressure forced the Army to expand clean up operations from a few isolated sites.

“There was a lot of press coverage. It certainly inflamed the community. As a result of some of the concerns they had, more of a political decision was made just to be sure,” according to the US Army’s Major Peloquin, in charge of the Spring Valley cleanup for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“You’re talking about 1600 properties. We’ve sampled 96% of the residential properties. Of those there are about 10% that have arsenic levels that are above the cleanup level that EPA and DC Health have established.” Fertilizer or pressure treated wood could also account for some of the elevated readings, says Peloquin.

Spring Valley’s yards are being stripped of topsoil. Yesterday’s old bombs under the manicured lawns of suburban DC are part of America’s so-called ‘non-stockpile’ chemical warfare materials, the uncounted chemical warfare agents that the US Army dumped or abandoned from WWI to the 1970s. This also includes the contaminated equipment used to produce, test and deal with chemical weapons. There are non-stockpile chemical weapons materials dumped in 38 US States at 244 sites. Final cleanup is not expected for decades and will cost billions of dollars.

The Chemical Weapons Convention and the thwarted inspector

The USA ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on April 17, 1997, with several major reservations. Washington reserved the right to withhold 50% of its contributions to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, charged with implementing the treaty. There are a host of ‘national security’ exemptions, allowing the US government to sanitize intelligence information submitted under the CWC.

The US did however commit to destroy its stockpile of 31,496 tons of chemical weapons, and to allow weapons inspections of a more polite sort than those to which Iraq must submit. Under UN Resolution 687, and now resolution 1441, Iraq must allow UN weapons inspectors to conduct snap inspections of its factories and military facilities. Iraq may not sanitize its intelligence information. President Bush maintains that no negotiations with Iraq are possible on these points, insisting on immediate Iraqi compliance. He is openly preparing to take the country to war, ostensibly to ‘disarm’ Iraq of weapons it has now declared to the United Nations, but not to the general public.

The chemical weapons of United States are not subject to much scrutiny, let alone threats of war from other nations, despite the massive size of its chemical weapons stockpile, and its record of poisoning its own local communities.

The timetable for America’s compliance with the CWC is more leisurely than that offered to Iraq under UN resolutions. The CWC set an April 29 2002 deadline for the US to destroy the raw materials for chemical weapons, and a 2007 deadline to destroy all its weapons. A one-time 5-year delay is allowed, pushing the final compliance date back to 2012.

Several studies by the General Accounting Office and internal documents from the chemical weapons demilitarization programme indicate that even the 2012 deadline may be difficult for America to meet. A 1998 internal Army report states “Even inside DoD and the Army the program lacks credibility; no one appears to want to take charge because it is seen as a disaster with no solution.” Since 1985, the programme’s budget has gone from $1.7 billion to $15.7 billion.

Just before the Convention’s April 29 2002 deadline, the US government called an extraordinary meeting of the OPCW to dismiss its Director General Jose Bustani, the world’s top weapons inspector. Bustani insisted on inspection of US chemical disposal facilities where there have been ongoing problems: worker exposure to chemical warfare agents and lawsuits by local residents opposed to incineration technology.

“The Convention establishes no special treatment for countries with a large chemical industry. I insist that the scope of access for our inspectors should be the same in all countries,” stated Bustani in an April 21 letter to member states.

Bustani was also close to obtaining Iraq’s signature under the CWC, a move that would have eliminated the Bush government’s only pretext for war, and given Iraq the same 2012 deadline available to the United States to destroy its chemical weapons.

US officials claimed that they disagreed with Bustani’s ‘management style’.

The citizen inspectors

Some residents of rural Umatilla Oregon disagree with the management style of the US Army, which plans to destroy part of its chemical weapons stockpile in their town. Umatilla Oregon is now at the forefront of a growing movement of US citizens demanding safer disposal of the deadliest chemicals ever created. There are no senators or congressmen, no ambassadorial mansions in Umatilla. There are farms.

For Karyn Jones, the world begins and ends at the front gate of the Umatilla Chemical Depot. “Our questions have been brushed aside,” she sighs.

Jones manages a dentist’s office in rural Hermiston Oregon, next door to Umatilla. She looks after her mother, suffering from pancreatic cancer. For 14 years she’s been organizing her community to stop the incineration of the 3,717 tons of chemical weapons that are stored at the depot, 12% of the US total. These include 105,888 M55 rockets, each filled with ten pounds of deadly VX nerve agent. Some rockets leak. The stockpile also contains one ton containers of mustard blister agent.

Karyn Jones wants these weapons destroyed by the 2012 deadline set out by the Chemical Weapons Convention. She doesn’t want them incinerated.

“When we first became involved, we were not necessarily opposed to incineration. We just wanted to know what was happening. The more we learned, the more horrified we became,” Jones says, alternating between earnestness and laughter informed by a bitter sense of irony. She’s a reluctant activist. But the situation at Umatilla is serious. A single drop of VX nerve agent will kill in minutes. Umatilla’s tons of VX are enough to kill millions of people.

Jones and other organized opponents of incineration want to get rid of the stockpile, but they are encouraging the Army to adopt cleaner, chemical and bio-neutralization technologies that have been used in Canada and the UK for decades and which are based on simple chemistry.

Karyn Jones and her citizens group, GASP has taken the state environmental regulator to court to revoke the incinerator’s permit. “We filed in August 1997 and we finally got to court in October,” Jones sighs. GASP works closely with the Chemical Weapons Working Group, (CWWG) a global coalition organizing for the safe disposal of chemical weapons.

Craig Williams lobbies for the safe disposal of the stockpile for the CWWG. He has documented scores of incidents when the US military has flouted environmental safeguards, releasing nerve gas into the environment. “We’re talking about VX, Sarin, some of the most deadly chemicals ever invented. This is directly out of the facility and into the environment. And this results from the inability of the high pressure high temperature incineration technology to control that material,” he says.

The US Army awarded the $567 million dollar contract to incinerate Umatilla’s deadly chemicals to Raytheon in 1997. Raytheon subsequently sold its demilitarization business to the Washington Group, which now operates four chemical weapons incinerators for the US Army.

“There is a small minority of people who are opposed to incineration,” Rick Kelly comments from the Washington Group’s Umatilla press office. “A lot of people say ‘Well, you are delayed.’ ‘Problems here, problems there.’ You know there are problems, possibly, but they are encountered during the testing phase.”

In August, initial burns of perclorethelyne, a carcinogenic dry cleaning solvent used to test the incinerator, released chromium, arsenic, lead and antimony into the incinerator’s smokestack. All are toxic metals. After several accidents, the State of Oregon shut down the incinerator on October 23 2002 pending legal action by Jones’ GASP and the Sierra Club.

Iraqi public health

How the chemical weapons in your neighborhood are disposed of depends on what neighborhood you live in. If a half billion dollar incineration plant is good enough for rural Americans, it’s clearly too expensive for ordinary Iraqis.

UNSCOM, the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq found Iraqi chemical weapons at Kamissiyah. They blew up an unknown number of chemical rockets – in the open air – on March 10, 1991.

“You dig a large pit. There is a rack at the bottom and you put your rockets on top. You fill the thing with oil, and you put a match to it. There is also an explosive charge underneath it. The whole thing goes up in a fireball. It’s not very healthy, but that’s what they did with the nerve gas rockets,” according to Dr Julian Perry Robinson, the world’s top expert on chemical weapons. Robinson edits the only journal on chemical weapons, the CBW Conventions Bulletin, and has advised the UN, World Health Organization, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He’s a lawyer and a chemist.

The General Accounting Office and Gulf War veterans associations cite the chemical exposure of US soldiers in southern Iraq from this and other incidents as one of the causes of Gulf War Syndrome. The National Gulf War Resource Centre called for a halt to chemical weapons incineration in 1999. The US Army ignored them. Meanwhile thousands of Iraqi children are being born with hideous birth defects in southern Iraq, where toxic smoke from burning oil wells, chemical weapons wastes and depleted uranium are combining in unknown and largely undocumented ways.

Robinson states, “I’m not sure that anybody actually measured the downwind plume. But then you think about the fuss over Gulf War Syndrome at Kamissiyah. After endless simulation the Americans came to the conclusion that the levels were so low that no harm could possibly have come from it.”

Congressional researchers have estimated that the plume traveled 200 to 500 kilometers.

But the health problems of Iraqis are off the US Army radar screen. The Pentagon has adopted a strategy of denial, maintaining in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary that low levels of nerve gas exposure are not harmful.

Craig Williams and the CWWG have compared the health problems in communities surrounding incinerators with the symptoms of Gulf War vets. They are remarkably similar, and include premature heart attacks, rare auto-immune diseases and MS. The children of Gulf War vets are also experiencing illness and higher incidence of birth defects. Williams argues that low levels of toxic exposure are an important environmental problem. “Based on the health problems that exist, and the level of contamination that exists in that area, that it is unconscionable to be adding to that toxic burden, especially when there are safe alternatives,” he says, referring to another troubled US Army chemical weapons incinerator at Tooele Utah.

Clean alternatives exist

Bob Palzer of the Sierra Club, a retired biochemist from UC Berkley, has been working closely with the US Army to adopt alternative technologies in response to citizen pressure. “90% of emissions that come out of an incinerator cannot be characterized. When EPA tried to identify them, they found that the bulk of them were carcinogens. That is a problem that is generic to incineration.”

“Essentially they are using a ‘dilution effect’ so that maybe what is coming out of the stack might meet the emissions limits, when taken together these chemicals get concentrated in the environment. They are bio-accumulative toxins that work their way up the food chain and accumulate in humans,” says the jovial Palzer, who cheerfully discusses the most toxic chemicals on earth.

The growing movement of US citizens opposed to incineration of chemical weapons is worried that the steady build-up of environmental toxins from chemical warfare incineration will have serious public health effects. Karyn Jones and Palzer work with the Chemical Weapons Working Group, campaigning to destroy chemical weapons with cleaner, less volatile technologies.

The Army set up a team to study alternatives in response to citizen pressure. Four technologies were approved. Palzer, who was on the team, enthuses “It was the most satisfying public process I have even been involved with.” He gets excited discussing clean alternatives to incineration. Mustard gas can be neutralized with water as hot as a household shower.

“You wouldn’t want to drink that water. You follow it off with a bio-treatment method, like a sewage treatment facility. In a relatively short period of time the water will come out cleaner than what you started with in the first place.” The Army is now adopting the new technology at three chemical weapons destruction sites. But existing incineration projects are slated to continue.

According to Palzer, “The Army having made a decision does not have the common sense to recognize that they made a great error. Rather than fix the problem, they lie. They have trolled so many lies. If they spent half the money that they spend on public relations and just looked at what the data is, they would be using alternatives at all the sites and would be much closer to being finished.”

Safety and Security

Clean water is a political question in Umatilla and Morrow counties, some of the most productive agricultural areas of the Pacific Northwest. Karyn Jones worries for the safety of her food. “Mustard [termed ‘gas’, but stored as a viscous liquid] is extremely carcinogenic and can be active in the soil for decades. Even if contamination doesn’t exist, if the public thinks that our area is contaminated, they won’t buy our crops.”

The US Army used to dump mustard agent in trenches, setting it on fire or mixing it with bleach in the open air. It was dumped in the deep ocean during the 50’s and 60’s.

The State of Oregon has repeatedly cited the Umatilla Chemical Depot for ‘deficiencies’ in its storage and handling of chemical weapons. The buildings where leaking nerve gas rockets are stored drain directly into the ground. The buildings are not airtight, allowing for uncontrolled vapour leaks of nerve agent into the environment. “We haven’t seen a drop of liquid agent at this depot in about ten years,” according to an Army spokesperson.

Security is also a problem. Civilian over-flights only stopped after September 11, 2001. One ton containers of mustard gas were stored out in the open up to the mid 1980s, when they were moved to a tin shed. After S-11 they were moved to earth-covered concrete bunkers called ‘igloos’. “We had been requesting that the air space over the depot be closed for years,” sighs Jones. The 14 years of organizing comes through in a tone of ironic resignation. “One of the Army reps said that there was far too much paper work involved,” she laughs. Black humour abounds in ‘nerve gas circles.’

New procedures are also being instituted to prevent workers from taking samples of Sarin nerve gas home in their pants.

On August 23, a worker at the Umatilla Depot fell ill and mistakenly left with a glass ampoule of nerve agent diluted in alcohol. The dilute agent is used to calibrate air-monitoring equipment. “Because our air monitoring equipment is measuring down to parts per trillion, we can use very dilute solution,” Army spokesperson Mary Binder calmly explains. “If you accidentally ingested this, it would not make you ill.” The dilute lab solution is 29.3 parts per billion. “Safety is our number one concern at the depot,” she repeats.

The US Clean Water Act prohibits any concentrations of chemical warfare agent in drinking water. The acceptable standard is zero nerve agent. Karyn Jones isn’t convinced by the Army’s reassurance. “Who knows what could have happened if it had fallen out of his pocket at home and his family had been in the room? Nobody knows. What if it went through the laundry?”

How toxic is toxic?

There is a growing body of evidence documenting the negative health effects from exposure to low levels of chemical warfare agent. The General Accounting Office, the CIA and other groups have pointed to low level exposure to deadly sarin nerve gas as a possible cause of Gulf War syndrome from the demolition of an Iraqi stockpile at Khamisiyah in 1991. But a September 1998 GAO report found that the US Department of Defense still did not have a strategy to deal with low levels of exposure to chemical weapons such as VX and Sarin.

VX is a viscous dark liquid, meant to be absorbed through the skin. Sarin is delivered as a mist to be inhaled for maximum lethality. Both disrupt the functions of the nervous system, inducing weakness, vomiting, convulsions, paralysis and death. Both interfere with a key neurotransmitter acetylcholine, wildly over-stimulating muscles and nerves.

Symptoms appear within a minute of exposure. Death comes within ten minutes. Exposure to a lethal or near lethal dose is rare. Citizens’ groups are much more concerned about the build up of low levels of these toxins in the environment, from what they argue are reckless storage and disposal practices, ultimately undestroyed nerve agent escaping in incinerator emissions and waste products.

Over a two-year period the Army’s Tooele Utah incinerator created 45 million pounds of hazardous waste, from burning three million pounds of nerve agent. There have been ongoing worker exposures to nerve agent and leaks at the Army’s Tooele Utah incinerator, the most recent in July when a worker was hospitalized with acute exposure symptoms.

Recent research by the National Research Council suggests that the various chemical weapons agents are much more toxic to humans and the environment than originally thought. The study recommended doubling the toxicity estimate for sarin gas.

Army standards were described in a December 12 letter to the US Army by US Senator Richard Shelby as ‘thoroughly discredited.” These allow a maximum exposure of 100 nanograms of nerve agent per cubic meter of air consumed. Standards for the general population are 3 nanograms per cubic meter of air. The Army standards are based on the assumption that a ‘steak and eggs’ US soldier can withstand more exposure because of youth and physical fitness.

The Umatilla incident “Now I have to live with what’s been done to me and my body.”

Brian Zasso was working as a steamfitter alongside 34 other workers during the construction of the Umatilla incinerator on September 15, 1999. That day he was transformed from a champion swimmer and athlete into “an old man” by an invisible cloud of toxic gas. He has not worked since.

“About 11:05 we got hit with something unknown. You could feel it on your skin first, a very strange tingling. The next breath I was in extreme pain. There was no odour, but a very acidic taste.” Brian Zasso calmly recounts his exposure to what he and his lawyers believe was Sarin gas. The US Army claims not to know what he was exposed to.

Mary Binder speaks for the US Army on the case. “We are comfortable with and are confident in the procedures we have, the testing that was done. We believe that through the legal process that the statements we have made and the reports that we have done will substantiate that chemical warfare agent was not the cause the incident of 15 September 1999.”

Brian Zasso’s recollection of September 15 is punctuated by a hacking cough. “My lungs froze up immediately. I started convulsing and having uncontrollable coughing spasms. All my muscles started twitching.”

A panic ensued. The gasping workers rushed down the hall to get away from the invisible fumes. That was when Tony Kimball collapsed. Zasso went back into the toxic fumes to pick up his friend and bring him out. “You do what you have to do. I went back down the hallway and got him. It must have been fifty feet. It only took seconds. You could not breathe. It was so painful, like you were breathing pure acid. We were all throwing up after it happened.” Zasso and 17 other workers are suing the Army.

The workers and the Army contest what happened immediately after the incident. They contest the cause of Zasso’s illness. Documents, some obtained under Freedom of Information allow us to reconstruct the events of September 15 in the sequence in which they occurred.

By approximately 2:00 PM, the workers have been taken to the local ER suffering from “acute onset of chest burning, prominent salivation, shortness of breath…neurologic symptoms of muscle weakness and twitching, paresthesias, blurry vision, weakness and confusion.” The Army has argued that the documented absence of miosis, the shrinking of the eye pupils to pinprick size, indicates that Zasso was not exposed to nerve agent.

At 2:28 PM, a technician detects elevated levels of sarin gas in K Block, the mile long strip of ‘igloos’ where the thousands of tons of chemical warfare agent are stored. At 2:30, the Army issues a press release simultaneously announcing an investigation and the conclusion that the accident “…does not involve chemical agent stored at the depot.” At 2:51 PM, another test conducted in another location detects elevated sarin levels. Mustard was also detected later.

No test results exist from the exact time the workers fell ill. Not all igloos are constantly monitored. But Zasso’s lawyers claim that the Army’s own meteorological data for that exact time show that the wind was blowing from K Block towards the area where Brian Zasso was working.

The Army’s spokesperson counters that the testing documents obtained under FOI were merely calibrations of air monitoring equipment. “It’s very easy to take an air monitoring document, it’s very easy to take that and say you’ve got a spike here. That’s a calibrating document for equipment.” The documents show clearly marked calibration readings as well as samples taken for both sarin and mustard.

The lowest sample reading for sarin nerve gas is at .89 nanograms per cubic meter of air, just under one third of the civilian limit. The lowest sample for mustard is at 88 nanograms per cubic meter, close to the civilian limit of 100 nanograms per cubic meter set for mustard agent.

The Army subsequently claimed to the workers’ lawyer that the sample readings were below the detection capabilities of the test gear, characterizing the spikes as ‘background noise’. However the Army’s manual for the test gear indicates that the readings from September 15 are actually well within the capabilities of the equipment.

The parties will argue about the exact source of Brian Zasso’s illness in court. Meanwhile, Zasso who can no longer work, is being cared for and financially supported by his two children. He’s a single father.

The US Army is skeptical. “You use the terms ‘seriously injured’ and ‘can’t work’. That requires a medical doctor to respond to that,” Mary Binder replies.

Brian Zasso has been diagnosed with Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome, “…and continues to experience cough, shortness of breath, and chest tightness on a daily basis. He has not been able to return to work due to these symptoms,” according to documents provided by his physician.

Brian Zasso tries to keep his attitude positive. “Now I have to live with what’s been done to me and my body.”

But Zasso is indignant at the Army’s continued refusal to accept responsibility for what happened to him and his fellows. “They told all the new hires that it was pepper spray by some ‘tree lover’. That was their terminology. It’s a ridiculous thing. We are professionals. We were out there because this stuff has to be destroyed. We know this.”

He turns the conversation to the pending US war against Iraq. “Why should we build biological weapons and things like that? Weapons of mass destruction? I don’t think that’s the way to solve problems. I don’t think we should ever have brought this on, because now everybody in the world has it. Saddam Hussein? The sarin he has is from us, from when he was our friend, years ago. It’s crazy.”

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