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Napalm to Halt in Kansas City Rail Yard

Safety: Length of stay is unknown. Material was en route to Chicago area when opposition there derailed the disposal plan.

April 16, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Confronted with a fierce "Do Not Enter" declaration from Chicago-area politicians, private haulers said Wednesday that they plan to leave a rail car loaded with napalm in Kansas City today instead of taking it to its original destination 500 miles up the line.

But no one is certain how long the two 6,000-gallon drums of napalm will remain in Kansas City--or where they will head from there.

"We expect a decision by midday [today] as to where to send it from there," said Greg Koller, a spokesman for Battelle, an Ohio-based scientific firm that contracted to handle disposal of more than 34,000 Navy napalm bombs now housed in northern San Diego County.

"The Navy is looking at some military options [for a storage site], and we're looking at some commercial options," he said. "This is a temporary fix."

The napalm shipment became a political bombshell after a Chicago-area processing plant--under pressure from the community--this week abruptly pulled out of a deal to treat millions of gallons of the jellied gasoline over the next two years and convert it into industrial fuel.

The company announced Monday that it would not accept the first shipment--two days after it had left the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station in northern San Diego County.

The Burlington North Santa Fe train carrying the napalm aboard an open flatcar linked to more than 60 other cars was expected to arrive in Kansas City on Wednesday night.

It should take only minutes to detach the car from the rest of the train, said Burlington spokesman Jerry Jenkins. Burlington has two rail yards in Kansas City--one on the Kansas side and the other on the Missouri side--and the rail car probably will be stored in one of those overnight, he said.

Burlington expects to hold the rail car in Kansas City for only a short while. "We hope that Battelle will honor its commitment and make a determination by noon [on the next destination] so we can resolve this issue and get the shipment where it's supposed to go," Jenkins said.

A Navy official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the Kansas City layover. "It's going to get there, and then we'll await the decision on the next stop," the official said.

As uncertainty mounted, so too did the political furor over the napalm shipment.

In a letter sent Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) asked the General Accounting Office in Washington to determine whether the original processor in East Chicago, Ind., an environmental firm called Pollution Control Industries, was threatened or pressured to abandon the recycling plan.

Packard suggested that there may have been a "quid pro quo" between unidentified Chicago-area congressional officials who oppose the project and federal officials controlling its fate. "The bottom line is that I want to know what meddling by the administration took place that may have led to [Pollution Control Industry's] decision and what illegal actions, if any, took place," said Packard, who has pushed for years to have the napalm removed from his area because of safety fears.

But Chicago congressman Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.), who has questioned both the safety of transporting the napalm and the competence of the firm that was supposed to process it, said such suggestions are unfounded.

Blagojevich said he is happy to see the shipment sidelined before it reaches its Chicago-area destination, but he noted that the development still leaves unanswered the question of how the Navy will dispose of 23 million pounds of the incendiary gel, which has been stored at Fallbrook since 1973.

The Navy has insisted that the napalm is safer for transport than many gases commonly transported throughout the country, but the congressman said: "Those things are necessities of everyday life, and there's a reason they have to be transported across the country. There's no real need to send napalm from the West Coast two-thirds of the way across the country. There's got to be a better way."

Not all the Chicago opponents believe the napalm is particularly dangerous.

The chief of staff to Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), whose district includes the original East Chicago treatment facility, said Wednesday that he believes that the Navy could have won public support there for the project had it not bungled the job of informing the public and putting to rest safety concerns.

"If bad judgment was oil, the Navy would be Saudi Arabia," said Chuck Brimmer. "The Navy just was arrogant about it. They just never ever gave anyone [in Chicago] the due consideration they deserved."

But Navy Cmdr. Cheryl Austin, part of the napalm team in Chicago, said the military held hearings throughout the area beginning in December for that very purpose. "It's hard to say why it didn't work," she said.

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