Although the Vietnam War ended more than two decades ago, the gasoline-based defoliant known as napalm still provokes horrible images of the unpopular war. So much so that residents in the Midwest have pressured a company there to renege on a contract to recycle napalm.
Now, the U.S. Navy may be looking at a hazardous waste incinerator in Utah's west desert to dispose of 3.3 million gallons of napalm over the next two years."We have had preliminary, informal talks with Laidlaw Environmental Services about burning (the napalm) at the Aragonite facility in Tooele County," said Carol Sisco, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality. "At this point, we can't say how long it would take to modify their permit to be able to accept it."
Maggie Wilde, a spokeswoman for Laidlaw Environmental Services in Utah, said Wednesday her company has been approached about accepting the napalm and, with a minor permit change, could burn the gelatin gasoline.
"Emotionally, napalm scares people because of the horrible things it did during the Vietnam War," Sisco said. "The reality is it is no more dangerous than the other fuels that travel through the state on a regular basis."
Laidlaw would need a slight modification of its existing permit if it were to accept the hazardous material. Napalm is a gelatin, and to burn it, it would have to be mixed with water - something not allowed under the existing permit.
Sisco said a modification to Laidlaw's permit could be simple or complex, depending on what Laidlaw wants to do to the napalm to make it burnable.
If the treatment needed to make napalm burnable is simple, the Department of Environmental Quality could issue an emergency modification within 24 hours. But the normal process to modify a permit would be for Laidlaw to provide DEQ with details about what it wants to do and then post a public notice in newspapers. That is followed by a 60-day public comment period, after which state regulators make their decision.
"It could take longer than 60 days if there is a lot of public concern," Sisco said.
The Navy is apparently looking for a quick solution. Some 12,000 gallons of jellied napalm is being held in Kansas City on a railroad car while the Navy searches for a waste management company to handle it.
The search for a waste management company came after the original company backed out, citing the public uproar in the Midwest over disposing of the napalm at a facility near Chicago. The napalm was to have been recycled into fuel for cement kilns.
The military and Battelle Memorial Institute, the primary contractor on the recycling job, said Wednesday they were searching for a storage place and for a company that could properly handle the sensitive cargo.
"The ideal solution is to find somebody that could take it and treat it," said Robin Yocum, a spokesman for Ohio-based Bat-telle. "We want it to happen now."
The 12,000-gallon shipment now in limbo left California on Saturday and traveled through parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas before reaching Kansas City late Wednesday.
Assistant Navy Secretary Robert Pirie, when asked if the Navy would send the train back to Caifornia - to the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center, about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles - responded: "We've been working on that alternative, yes."
The Navy is considering other options, including companies that lost the bid on the disposal contract. Laidlaw, which has seen business decline at its hazardous-waste incinerator in recent years, likely would welcome the Navy's business.