Pine Bluff, Arkansas Residents are
"Too Close for Comfort"
(The following was excerpted from the September 1997 issue of "Common Sense", the newsletter of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, published by the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.)
As Deloris Pierce puts her four children to sleep, she often wonders how she will evacuate her family if a chemical accident occurs. Charles Anderson shares the same concerns for his family. They both live in Jefferson County, only a stone's throw away from the Pine Bluff Arsenal and 12% of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile. Now the Army is planning to incinerate its second largest stockpile in the US in the backyards of hundreds of families near Pine Bluff.
If an accident occurs at the Arsenal, the community knows that they're not capable of evacuating their homes in time before being exposed to lethal doses of nerve agent. Some in the community even have a railroad crossing that blocks their only way in and out of the neighborhood. Trains pass as often as 9 times a day. Based on the Army's draft Environmental Impact Statement that explores the environmental risks of incinerating the Arsenal stockpile, Mr. Anderson figures that if an accident were to occur then he and his neighbors would have only 2 minutes and 30 seconds to drive to shelters that are several miles away. If a train is passing at the same time, it could take much longer. The Army has done little to build the confidence of area residents. "I live [close to the proposed incinerator site] and I don't believe the Army has a right to burn nerve gas next to my, or anyone else's house. But if the governor and PC&E aren't going to stop this plan, then the Army should pay for relocating our neighborhoods," said another area resident, Richard Stanley.
Some families feel that their kids are safer while at school because of a shelter in the High School Gym. But the 515 students ages 5 to 12 at Moody Elementary have to run across a field to get to the high school's shelter. Some parents wonder if there will be enough time for their kids to make it to the shelter if an accident occurs.
The chemical weapons disposal plan could pose risks to Pine Bluff even if the incinerator never had an accident. In the 1980s, the Army burned a chemical agent known as BZ in Pine Bluff. Although the Army states the disposal of BZ was "safe and environmentally sound," no one knows for sure what effects it had on the surrounding community. Many residents have reported strange health problems ranging from whole households waking up at the same time with bloody noses, to problems with pregnancies, birth defects and endometriosis among young women. One person has even been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Gulf War Syndrome. "Low levels of nerve agent released by incineration may pose a risk to civilians similar to what our soldiers faced in the Persian Gulf," charged Jim Tuite of the Chronic Illness Research Foundation and Gulf War Research Foundation.
Congress has frozen plans to incinerate stockpiles in Kentucky and Colorado while a search for alternative technologies continues. It took an act of Congress to get the Army to even consider safer alternatives. Although only Kentucky and Colorado have a temporary "freeze" on incineration, Pine Bluff could be a candidate for alternative technologies. The issue of chemical weapons disposal has remained in relative obscurity here in Arkansas -- but this must change if the weapons are to be disposed of safely. For more information on how Arkansas residents can help ensure safe disposal of the Pine Bluff chemical weapons, call us at the Panel at (501)376-7913.
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