For the third time in five years, the Navy has reached an agreement with a firm to remove 2.7 million gallons of Vietnam War-era napalm at a Navy weapons storage facility near Fallbrook.
Palm Enterprises of Oxnard has been selected to handle the job of processing the volatile material so it can be safely removed from the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station and salvaged.
Dick Rosencrants, a spokesman for the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service in Battle Creek, Mich., said the firm was selected over three other companies that submitted bids ranging from $5,700 to $53,200. The final selection was made late Wednesday, he said.
Although Palm Enterprises' bid of $10,000 was far from the highest, the selection was not based entirely on "economic principles," Rosencrants said.
Other factors that went into the four-month evaluation process included the company's financial stability, technical capabilities, environmental background and expertise in handling such materials, he said.
In part, military officials favored the firm because it promised to have the napalm removed within two years, Rosencrants said.
The napalm--a flammable, sticky mix of gasoline, benzene and polystyrene--has been stored in 33,800 aluminum canisters at the weapons station since the mid-1970s.
In World War II and in Korea and Vietnam, napalm bombs were used primarily against enemy troop concentrations and fortified positions. The polystyrene, a plastic material, turned the gasoline in the bombs into a jelly-like substance that caused the burning mixture to stick to anything it hit.
On two previous occasions, firms selected to remove the napalm from the weapons station have failed to perform the task.
In January, 1982, Navy officials accepted a $182,000 bid from two trucking firms, but the companies backed out of the deal a year later, claiming that environmental restrictions made the salvage operation too costly.
Bud's Oil Service of Phoenix agreed in November, 1983, to pay the Navy $380,000 for the right to salvage the napalm. The firm defaulted on its contract last year when it failed to begin work on time despite two extensions by the Navy.
Rosencrants explained that the lower bids this time around were due to the plunge in oil prices.
He said Palm Enterprises would be required to process the material at the weapons station, probably to remove the polystyrene so the volatile mix would be rendered safe for transportation. The firm plans to build an apparatus at the weapons station to separate the material, he said.
The remaining chemicals then will be repacked for shipment and final recycling at the firm's Oxnard processing plant, he said. Palm Enterprises will recover its costs for the processing and shipping operation by selling the gasoline and other chemicals removed. It is estimated that the firm could garner up to $2.5 million for the recycled materials, according to Pentagon officials.
Rosencrants said he did not have details of how Palm Enterprises planned to render the napalm safe for removal from the base. Calls to executives of the firm went unreturned.
Initially, Defense Department officials had considered allowing the firms that submitted bids on the project to transport the napalm in its existing canisters. That proposal, however, was dropped after the state Department of Transportation determined the containers would prove unsafe for travel.
Palm Enterprises, a joint venture of Anchor Refining Inc. of Oxnard and Monrovia-based I. Sheinbaum, is required to begin gathering within the next 90 days the various state and county air quality and environmental permits necessary to do the processing work in Fallbrook, Rosencrants said.
The Department of Defense and the Navy will monitor the recycling and transportation operation each step of the way, he added.
In recent years, some of the aluminum containers have leaked, but the military has insisted that the threat posed to the environment or public health was insignficant. The cigar-shaped bomb canisters, which weigh 500 to 700 pounds each, are monitored regularly to ensure that no danger arises, according to officials at the weapons station.
"If everything goes well, this particular problem for the Fallbrook area will be solved shortly," Rosencrants said. "Our people feel comfortable with this contract. They don't see any problems."