NERVE-GAS LEAK FOUND IN BIN ON JOHNSTON ATOLL

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By Jan TenBruggencate Advertiser Science Writer

JOHNSTON ATOLL (December 7, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---Army officials discovered a bin of materials leaking toxic nerve gas Tuesday at the chemical weapons disposal plant at Johnston Island.

Medical tests indicated no one was exposed to the VX gas. The contaminated materials were being kept in a secure location where ventilators attached to carbon filtration systems prevent the release of the material into the atmosphere or work areas. An investigation is under way to determine how the chemical survived the incinerator that is designed to deactivate the substance.

VX is one of three chemical weapons that have been stored at Johnston since the 1960s. The Army’s Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JCADS) last month completed a 10-year program of destroying stored chemical weapons and is now in the process of shutting down the plant.

The plant contained mortars, rockets, land mines and other weaponry containing VX, the nerve agent GB or sarin, and the blister agent known as mustard. All the GB- and mustard-containing materials were destroyed earlier, and the plant had just finished its program to destroy the last of the mines containing VX.

VX, termed a cholinesterase-inhibitor, acts by interfering with the body’s ability to transmit signals from nerves to muscles.

Cherly Maggio, a chemical engineer with the Army’s Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, said it appeared the VX was coming from absorbent pads that were used to soak up any spills of chemical warfare agents during storage, transport and handling. She said it is still not clear why the superheated furnaces that are designed to destroy chemical agents failed to do so.

"This is one of those things that we did not expect… We are going to be evaluating what the situation is," she said.

No workers were directly exposed to the VX gas, she said. Blood tests on nine employees found no detectable evidence of exposure.

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