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EPA Settles Case with the U.S. Army for Release of VX Nerve Agent at Johnston Island

Release Date: 8/4/2003
Contact Information: Dean Higuchi, (808) 541-2711

Army will restore native plants for seabird habitat in addition to fines

SAN FRANCISCO The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has settled its case with the U.S. Army for the Dec. 2000 release of a nerve agent at the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System facility and will pay a total $273,625 in fines and projects.

The Army has corrected the conditions that led to the violations the EPA cited and will spend $182,500 to restore native plants on portions of the Johnston Atoll wildlife refuge, approximately 800 miles southwest of Hawai'i. In addition, the Army will pay a fine of $91,125.

"The Army's planned re-vegetation project goes beyond violations and paying a penalty," said Amy Zimpfer, acting director for the EPA Pacific Southwest Region's Waste Management Division. "The project will help restore fragile bird habitat and mitigate the negative environmental effects of decades of past military activity on this remote Pacific island."

The project will enhance the only habitat for Pacific seabirds in 800,000 square miles of ocean.

"This project is intended to help restore native vegetation on Johnston Island and should run concurrently with the demolition of much of that island's infrastructure," said Lindsey Hayes, refuge manager for the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. "The types of vegetation to be planted provide valuable nesting habitat to numerous species of seabirds breeding at Johnston Atoll."

A required monthly sampling of incinerator ash at JACADS found a bin of ash that contained an unknown quantity of VX nerve agent. Personnel at the facility were instructed to re-sample the ash, and to later wrap the bin and move it to the proper hazardous waste storage area.

The EPA found that:

- the workers did not have the proper protective gear;
- the facility's emergency procedures were not complied with;
- hazardous waste was stored in a non-permitted area;
- the Army failed to timely notify the EPA of the release of nerve agent.

The settlement resolves the EPA's complaint against the Army, which neither admits nor denies the allegations.

Death from inhalation or exposure to VX on the skin can occur within minutes. A lethal dose can be as small as a droplet the size of Lincoln's head inside the Lincoln Memorial on the back of a penny.

The JACADS facility was designed to incinerate military weapons containing blister agents and the chemical nerve agents GB (sarin) and VX. Beginning in 1990, the facility has now destroyed four million pounds of chemical agents and chemical weapons originally stored on Johnston Island. The Army is in the process of closing the JACADS facility and is required to do a complete clean-up of the area.

Johnston Atoll supports a rich and varied ecosystem for thousands of nesting seabirds, corals and marine life. It consists of approximately 50 square miles of shallow coral reef surrounding four islands, the largest of these being Johnston Island.

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