A Vietnamese gardener in the shadow of the Houston skyline Sharon Stewart FEATURE Burning Questions BY MICHAEL KING Has the Navy’s napalm found a home in Texas? The Department of the Navy, which for several years has been trying to rid itself of some 3.4 mil lion gallons of surplus napalm currently stored in California, would certainly like to think so. In early July the Navy, through its prime contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute prevented earlier this year from unloading the napalm on northern Indiana awarded what it calls a “recycling” contract to the GM Group, Inc., a hazardous waste fuel blender facility located in Deer Park. Twenty-two thousand gallons of the viscous material, described by Navy engineers as a test batch, has already been shipped by rail to GM, where the plan is to blend it with other, unspecified industrial wastes, thereby to produce what the Navy describes as an “alternative fuel” intended for use in cement kilns. That, at least, is the Navy’s intention. But some of GM’ s Deer Park neighbors, as well as a nationwide coalition of environmental and community groups which has been fighting the Navy’s plan for years, remains determined to stop the project. They charge that the Navy’s method of napalm disposal is not true recycling at all, but simply dangerous and pollution-producing toxic waste incineration under another name. In addition, the project constitutes a massive federal subsidy for the cement kiln industry, which will be paid to burn the waste fuel. “This is not just about napalm,” says Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. “This is about the government and industry’s insistence that incineration is a safe and efficient way to deal with toxic waste. Incineration as a disposal technology is a failure.” The Navy has responded to its opponents by mobilizing an intense public relations campaign, from D.C. to Deer Park, hoping to persuade public officials and concerned citizens that napalm is a relatively innocuous substance, “safer than gasoline,” and suggesting that opponents are only responding to the history of napalm’s use as an incendiary weapon, especially in Vietnam. According to Thomas Pinard, one of a group of four Navy public affairs officers currently assigned to Deer Park to promote the Texas napalm project, the most recent tripled the cost of the Navy’s contract, to nearly $10 million. “The cost goes up,” Pinard said, “each time we get knocked out of the box.” In response to the public opposition, he went on, “I told [the Navy] we need to change the name,” said Pinard. “It isn’t ‘napalm,’ in the sense of a weapon. We could call it anything ‘jellied gasoline.'” Not only is the material, as currently stored and shipped, not explosive, said Pinard, “It’s difficult to get it to burn. You could stick a flare in it and it won’t burn.” Battelle spokesman Robin Yocum recalled the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut, depicting a group of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack, and told The New York Times, “You say napalm to most people, and they picture that image of that little girl running down the road. But you explain to people in Houston that it’s just gasoline mixed with benzene and styrene and they know right away what you’re talking about and what you’re dealing with.” The August 10 Times article, by new Houston bureau chief Rick Lyman, suggests that the Navy’s PR campaign is working at least on the Times. Under the headline, “Much-Repudiated Napalm Finds Wary Acceptance, if Not Warm Welcome, in Texas,” the article took at face value the Navy’s claim that its chosen procedure mixing the napalm with waste solvents for cementkiln fuel constitutes “recycling,” and further suggested that people in Texas, accustomed to dealing with hazardous wastes, would shrug at “just gasoline mixed with benzene and styrene.” \(Houstonians, whether they know it or not, are certainly familiar with these substances; the Harris county air is heavily polluted with industrial wastes including annually, for example, more than 700 tons of highly carcinogenic Times did acknowledge that some Ship Channel residents were not so delighted at the prospect. “We’ve already got a toxic soup around here,” said Channel View 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 11, 1998
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