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Long-Delayed Disposal of Napalm Is Set to Begin

Military: Vietnam War-era canisters stored near San Diego will be recycled at Texas plant. Public protests halted previous plans.

July 11, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to end its vexing, 16-year effort to eliminate a noxious symbol of the Vietnam War, the Navy announced Friday that millions of gallons of napalm will be sent from California to Texas for disposal and recycling beginning next week.

This time, officials hope, the deadly jellied gasoline will reach its destination.

A similar plan to process the napalm outside Chicago blew up in April amid a wave of political and public opposition there, forcing the military to order an embarrassing U-turn for the first rail car shipment even before it had reached the disposal plant.

In Texas, scattered groups of residents near the Houston plant that was picked Friday for the unpopular disposal task are already voicing safety concerns. But political leaders have expressed cautious acceptance of the plan, and it has not set off the type of strident and widespread opposition that triggered the imbroglio in the Chicago area.

"While there are always concerns about doing things in an environmentally safe manner, this type of project doesn't present extraordinary concerns to the community," said Ron Crabtree, city manager for Deer Park, Texas, where the disposal plant is located. In an area along the Houston shipping channel that is heavy with industrial sites, Crabtree said in an interview, "there's an understanding here that this is a part of our economic base."

About 3.4 million gallons of napalm is now housed in 34,000 defused bomb canisters north of San Diego, at the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station. Made to be dropped by U.S. planes over Vietnam in a ball of liquid fire, the napalm canisters have been stored there since 1973, and four attempts to dispose of them since 1982 have failed. Making matters worse, some of the aluminum containers have begun to leak a gooey residue in recent years, fueling the frustrations of San Diego area politicians who have demanded that the military do something.

The impatience of two area congressmen, Reps. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), was made clear in the bold, uppercase headline on a statement they released Friday: "Navy Contracts Again to Remove Napalm." Although the congressmen said they are willing to assist in this latest disposal effort, they added, "we ultimately hold the Navy responsible for the removal of the remaining canisters of napalm without further delays."

The first train shipments to Texas should begin next week, including two 6,000-gallon tanks of napalm that had to be rerouted after the Chicago-area contractor pulled out of the disposal job. Those tanks are now temporarily housed at the China Lake military facility, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert.

Shipments from Fallbrook should continue regularly over the next two years. The GNI Group, the Texas hazardous-waste firm chosen for the $9-million disposal, is expected to blend the napalm with other industrial byproducts, creating an alternative fuel for cement kilns, officials said.

Navy and project leaders held several meetings this week in Texas to answer concerns from the public about napalm, which the military says is considered safer than gasoline because it is less volatile and requires a detonator to ignite.

"If there's any difference in what we did this time [compared to the Chicago withdrawal], it's that we did a much more thorough public outreach this time around," said Lee Saunders, an environmental affairs spokesman with the Navy. "We did as much as we could this time around to educate and inform the public and to make sure that any questions were answered in advance."

As a result, he predicted, "this project is going to work."

The plan has drawn some criticism from Houston-area residents, but objections have been limited.

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