Where’s The VX?

If you’re like me, you want to know where the VX is.

On January 21, Richard Armitage acted out our need to know about chemical weapons on national TV. “Where’s the VX, where’s the sarin?” demanded an indignant Armitage of Saddam Hussein, in one of his more melodramatic performances as Deputy Secretary of State. But this was all a parlour room pantomime for our morbid whipped up dread and fascination. Watching Armitage was like watching a six year old with a weak bladder hunt desperately for the potty. The facts on chemical weapons offer no causus belli, no release from the tension of bellicose Washington speechifying, and so facts must be invented. Time, the US President reminds us, is running out.

And so is my patience for the nonsense and hypocrisy about chemical weapons in the media. Reporters are buying time for Bush by their silence on the realities of chemical weapons.

The war schedule is clearly dictated by the desert temperature, and George Bush’s two year, multi-billion dollar re-election campaign, of which a ground war in Central Asia is just Act One. Nerve gas has nothing to do with it. So this is what it was like to watch the Roman Republic morph into the Roman Empire.

As a counterpoint to the sight of Iraqi civilians brandishing AK47s in the streets, the leader of the ‘coalition of the willing’ (George and Tony) offered his own little dribble in this pathetic ‘debate’ about whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. “It’s clear Iraq isn’t disarming,” says the solipsistic President of the United States while he masses his own forces to crush Iraq.

This must be what TS Eliot feared – not Hitler, but his banker’s ignorant grandson. “This looks like the rerun of a bad movie, and I don’t feel like watching,” Bush said to the Iraqi people of any chance for peace. Bush spoke wearing this schoolboy insolence on his sleeve to millions of Iraqi people who have spent more than twenty years in a reality TV show called Hell on Earth, all scripted in America. And that hell was created in part by the chemical weapons US corporations (many of whom donated plenty to Bush’s Presidential campaign) sold to Saddam in the first place.

The fateful symmetry is both terrible and beautiful to behold, as symmetry always is.

Last summer, when George W Bush first started singing his classic monotone ‘Dirge for weapons of mass destruction,’ an opera in one tragic act for which a terrible orchestra is now tuning, I too wondered in suspense “Where’s the VX? Where are these deadly weapons?” Chemical weapons proliferation has been after all, the advertised premise of this most Presidential magnum opus – War on Iraq: Showdown with Saddam. I soon discovered the realities of chemical and biological weapons were larger and more terrible than Mr. Bush’s simple libretto.

Now since I tend towards journalism, I thought I had struck pure gold, and a story that should be covered in efficient little reporter footprints. But no. The splendid robes of the emperor are hidden in plain sight where they may not be mentioned.

A cursory Google search easily documents how in April of last year, the United States torpedoed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, just as Iraq was about to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. On the net a twelve year old in the public library can meet various non-governmental organizations and scholars who have studied how to make, store and dispose of chemical weapons. One can easily meet Pentagon scientists who openly advertise that they are busy making new chemical weapons in the form of sedative drugs – on the dime of the US taxpayer.

How rich then, for editors to consider, just for a moment, the ironic possibilities presented by the tax evaders, stock swindlers and lying oilmen who govern the one country with a chemical industry that produces chemical and biological weapons in such quantities – the United States of America. Given that the Ford Administration’s Republican retreads today ask us to bless their war for oil based on the apparently well hidden remnants of the chemical weapons they sold to Iraq during Reagan’s administration, this seemed to me the kind of scandal that every honest editor would crave. Especially when one considers what the US chemical industry does for the Republican party, and what gets done in return.

Think Enron meets poison gas. You would think an editor would kill for the chance to compare the way we treat American chemical weapons with the way Iraq’s are treated, but no. This is how the Foreign Editor of a major Canadian daily explained it. “The US situation is an environmental problem; the Iraq situation is an international security issue. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about the US. We should. But it merits attention for entirely different reasons than Iraq does.” Keep that in mind.

Brian Zasso’s story doesn’t fit into a media professional’s neat picture of the world.

Brian Zasso is not a national news figure, though he should be. Mr. Zasso and 16 others are suing the US Army for their exposure to sarin nerve gas at the Umatilla chemical weapons incinerator on September 15, 1999. Few remember the apocalyptic events of 9-15, when 34 Americans were poisoned – by American chemical weapons.

But Brian Zasso remembers.

“I was just a construction worker, hired through my union. I was on the job seven days. It was a normal workday. About 11:05 we got hit with something unknown. You could feel it on your skin first, tingling. A very strange tingling. The next breath I was in extreme pain. There was no odour. But a very acidic taste.”

Zasso’s lawyers, based on the Army’s own documents, are making the case that Zasso tasted sarin nerve gas that day, as did Tony Kimball who collapsed from the fumes.

Brian Zasso ran back into the invisible toxic cloud to pull his friend Tony out.

“I got down the hallway and I saw that my partner had fallen down on his face. I turned around and I re-entered and went back in and helped him out. Both of us came tumbling out, and people dragged us out of the doorway. By that time we couldn’t breathe. You do what you have to do.”

Zasso and 16 others feel that help came too late. “It was two hours before they took us off-site to the hospital, before we were given any kind of medical care.” According to the EPA, after exposure to sarin, one should “Move the victims to fresh air. Emergency personnel should avoid self-exposure to sarin. RUSH to a health care facility!” The emphasis is the EPA’s.

The Army says he was taken care of. His symptoms were certainly suggestive of nerve gas exposure. “I started convulsing and having uncontrollable coughing spasms. All my muscles started twitching. Right away I knew there was something serious,” he says through a fit of coughing.

Yet the Army is not convinced. “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,” says the US Army spokesperson today. The Army’s line has not changed since they issued a press release announcing an investigation simultaneous with the conclusion that the poisoning of the workers “…does not involve chemical agent stored at the depot.” They issued this release three hours after the incident, while Brian Zasso was still in the emergency ward, during a sarin gas leak described by their own air monitoring documents. Mustard was detected a half hour after the release was sent to the media.

Zasso was severely injured while building a chemical weapons incinerator for Raytheon, which has since spun off this troubled enterprise to the Washington Group. What does the Washington Group spokesperson say about documentary evidence that a worker was exposed to nerve gas on a Raytheon jobsite? “I can’t comment on the Army’s documents. I’m not aware of those documents.”

Zasso is more than willing to comment. “We were the professionals hired to go out there and build this. We went through all their safety training telling us how safe we were, and how it was well monitored, and that we didn’t need any kind of masks or protection. Raytheon and the US Military told us that at our safety briefings.” There was no continuous air quality monitoring at the depot for nerve gas leaks in 1999. The technology the Army is currently using at the perimeter of the depot cannot detect VX leaks. The monitors sound the alarm – between 12 and 48 hours after detecting nerve gas.

The air monitoring documents obtained by Zasso’s lawyers under Freedom of Information indicate that sarin nerve gas rockets were leaking that day, and the wind was blowing towards the spot where Zasso and his colleagues were working – without protective masks.

Zasso has received no compensation. He is a single dad, who is currently being supported by the labour of his children. But his story is not news. It does not make us rage against the people of Iraq, but rather at the real makers, financiers and users of weapons of mass destruction in the form of the deadliest chemicals in the world – the corporate friends of the Republican right and the ignorant man squatting the Oval Office to ensure corporate America’s taxes are cut, and that America’s CEOs get out of jail free. And so the media does its job – by saying nothing about these glaring contradictions at an inconvenient moment for the Bush regime.

So where’s the VX, where’s the sarin, where’s all the mustard gas? Only 11.6 percent of the US stockpile is at Umatilla.

There are 158,174 sarin nerve gas rockets in earth covered bunkers sitting at the Umatilla chemical depot containing 2,028,020 pounds of sarin. There are 2,635 one ton containers containing 4,679,040 pounds of mustard gas. There are 62,398 rockets and warheads containing 727,720 pounds of VX nerve agent. That’s 3,717 tons of the deadliest chemicals on earth enough to kill every man woman and child in America. A single drop on the skin can be lethal. And some of those rockets and ton containers are leaking.

The US Army has until 2012 to destroy these weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Iraq is not allowed to sign, because allowing Iraq to do so would eliminate the Bush government’s phony pretext for war, by revealing just how tiny the Iraqi arsenal is, when compared with the American one.

The US Army chose to incinerate its stockpile in the 1980s. The Chemical Weapons Demilitarization Program will cost 24 billion dollars. The programme is now 1400% over budget. But incinerating these chemical weapons is so dangerous that it has inspired a global movement of opposition. How deadly is the deadliest chemical VX? “It’s not lethal unless you come into contact with it,” said Lt Col Fred Pellissier, the commander of the Umatilla Depot to the readers of his local paper.

A tiny American NGO, The Chemical Weapons Working Group coordinates the activities of communities that live beside chemical weapons dumps and depots, some rural, others communities of colour, some in Russia. They have nearly halted the drive towards incineration at America’s 8 remaining chemical weapons disposal sites. They are lobbying hard for the use of less volatile, safer technologies, some that use plain hot water, to first neutralize then biodegrade the material until what remains can be safely disposed of. The Army has adopted these new technologies at four disposal sites, thanks to the pressure exerted by the CWWG.

Yet national dailies do not consider their remarkable public service work to be ‘protecting America’ from a threat to its ‘national security.’

At Umatilla the CWWG is assisting a local citizens’ group led by Karyn Jones in an unprecedented lawsuit that seeks to revoke the incinerator’s permit from the State of Oregon’s environmental regulator. This suit comes not only after the incident of 9-15, but after a worker took a dilute sample of sarin nerve agent home in his pants in August 2002, and after several tests of the incinerator using perclorethelyne failed in September, releasing heavy metals into the environment.

America’s weapons of mass destruction and their toxic legacy are not news.

The mainstream media is seldom interested in the views of Bob Palzer, from the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club. Palzer is a retired Berkeley chemistry professor who has worked with both the Chemical Weapons Working Group and the Army to make the clean disposal of chemical weapons a reality.

Palzer is dead opposed 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.” Local residents at Umatilla fear that these toxins will accumulate in their bodies.

They cite the experience of Iraq for their justified apprehension, out of step with the editors, and so out of the public mind.

The chemical warfare agents sold to Iraq by US corporations have accumulated in the bodies of southern Iraqi women, who give birth to jellyfish babies, who give birth to babies with Zyklopie, a hideous deformity that merges nose and mouth, erasing the human face. When an Iraqi mother gives birth to a child today, she does not ask if it’s a boy or a girl. She asks with hope and dread “Is it normal?” A face is no longer a birthright for Iraqi children, thanks in part to American chemical weapons technology.

These toxins have also accumulated in the bodies of Gulf War veterans, 28% of whom have become dreadfully ill with a host of horrifying neurological and auto-immune symptoms. Exposure to a toxic mixture containing low levels of chemical warfare agent, the toxic smoke from oil wells, and depleted uranium is killing Gulf War vets. In 1998 Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accounting Office found that the US Army still did not have a plan to deal with low levels of chemical warfare agent exposure.

And US soldiers were exposed, but not to an Iraqi attack, the way some ‘patriots’ would have us believe.

The US Army’s 37th Engineering Brigade destroyed an Iraqi chemical weapons depot at Kamisiyah on March 4, 1991. As with 9-15, there are some for whom 3-4 was a day as fateful as 9-11. The GAO estimated that up to 150,000 US soldiers may have been exposed to low levels of the chemical warfare agent released by the US Army’s chosen disposal method for Iraq’s deadly chemical weapons – the ones that ‘threaten America.’ Low levels of chemical warfare agent can kill or cause illness over time.

Nerve agents like sarin and VX are so toxic, the US Army has an incredibly detailed procedure for exactly how to clean them up. “Spills must be covered with vermiculite, diatomaceous earth, clay or fine sand. An alcoholic HTH mixture is prepared by adding 100 millimeters of denatured ethanol to a 900 millimeter slurry of HTH in water. This mixture should be made just before use since the HTH can react with the ethanol. Fourteen grams of alcoholic HTH solution are used for each gram of VX..,” and so it goes on and on for dense paragraphs, with steps upon steps, each with precautions. Deadly chemicals require great care in handling, according to the specs.

Yet the US Army blew up Saddam’s sarin nerve gas in the open air on 3-4-91. Julian Perry Robinson, an advisor to the UN, WHO and UK government on chemical weapons describes how Iraq’s deadly chemical weapons were treated. “First 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.”

The Pentagon first claimed they had no knowledge that the Kamisiyah depot contained chemical weapons. But by April 1997, the CIA was forced to admit that it had detailed intelligence on the storage of Iraqi sarin nerve gas rockets at Kamisiyah since 1986. The engineers who destroyed these weapons were never informed as to their true nature.

In the language of Republican think tanks, this was not a ‘best practice.’ As a result, many of the soldiers who were at Kamisiyah are now sick with Gulf War Syndrome. We are united with Iraq, in America’s hospitals, where the casualties from the last Gulf War are struggling to live in the shadow of the absurdity of today’s UN sponsored hunt for chemical weapons, in Mosques and chicken farms where they could not be hidden without everybody around becoming very visibly ill. The UN inspection process and thus Security Council Resolution 1441, is a complete farce.

So the mainstream press treats the most ludicrous statements of the Bush regime, preposterous rhetorical theatre like “Where’s the VX?” with a deference that would tickle Saddam’s Stalin style moustache.

UN experts must be very frustrated as Iraqi scientists and technicians open every door, only to find nothing there. They must be frustrated, since they are now breaking into chicken farms. The Bush administration knows where Saddam’s VX rockets came from, where they would be stored today if they still exist, and where more than 24 thousand tons of deadly chemical warfare agents wait to be discovered by the wider American public that lives in their shadow. Thus the silence.

America’s Chemical Weapons Stockpile

At Umatilla Oregon sit 3, 717 tons of chemical warfare agents including bulk sulfur mustard in one ton drums, and nerve agents contained in bombs, rockets, landmines and spray tanks. Incineration is set to begin later this year.

Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado stores 2,611 tons of blistering agents in cartridges and projectiles. The Army abandoned plans to incinerate this stockpile in March 2002.

Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah holds 13,616 tons of chemical warfare agent. These include blister agents in cartridges, projectiles, ton containers as well as nerve agents in cartridges, projectiles, rockets mines, ton containers and spray tanks. Some of this material has been destroyed at the chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele Utah, one of the most polluted counties in the 48 contiguous United States. The Tooele incinerator has been beset by many problems, including releases of chemical warfare agent into the atmosphere, and worker exposure. Several whistleblowers have attempted to bring patterns of consistent disregard for EPA regulations and worker safety at Deseret and Tooele to light.

Kalama (Johnston) Atoll off Hawaii held 2,031 tons of chemical warfare agents: blister agents in projectiles and mortars, ton containers and cartridges as well as nerve agent in ton containers, projectiles mines and bombs. These have now been incinerated, but not without many incidents and nerve agent releases into the environment.

At Pine Bluff Arkansas, 3,850 tons of blister agent in ton containers as well as nerve agents in rockets and mines is about to be incinerated, over the opposition of many in the local community, including Pine Bluff for Safe Disposal.

Same situation at Anniston Alabama, where a largely black community wants to prevent the incineration of 2,254 tons of blister agent in cartridges, projectiles and ton containers, as well as similar configurations of nerve agent. Opposed to the incineration of this deadly legacy are Martin Luther King III, and the Governor of Alabama.

The Blue Grass Kentucky site holds a mere 523 tons of blister and nerve agent in projectiles. Local politicians and citizens have blocked their incineration.

The Edgewood Chemical site at Aberdeen Proving Ground holds 1,625 tons of blister agent in one ton drums. These will be neutralized, not incinerated.

Meanwhile in Newport Indiana, 1,269 tons of nerve agent in one ton containers stand as a testimony to waste. These will be destroyed using new non-incineration technologies.

To learn more about America’s chemical and biological weapons, visit the following sites.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group www.cwwg.org

The Sunshine Project

The Federation of American Scientists www.fas.org

Record of deformed Iraqi children at
(very disturbing images)

Spend some time with the most deadly chemical in the world – VX http://www.chem.ox.ac.uk/mom/vx/VX.htm

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