Napalm Recycling Project Frustrates Texas Town

This week's shipment of Vietnam-era napalm has Texas environmentalists claiming racism.

For Bill Reeves, turning explosive napalm bombs into an industrial fuel at his factory on the Houston ship channel is the ultimate in recycling - and good business, too.

But for Karla Land, it's one more example of industry putting a potentially hazardous project into the Hispanic and black neighborhoods that she has called home for 20 years. Like a growing number of neighbors, she vows to stop it.

"They figure it's so nasty over there anyway, what's a little more going to do?" says Mrs. Land, whose modest tan brick home here lies downwind of the proposed napalm project. "But we're tired of being dumped on. We have no other choice but to jump up and say, 'Stop!' "

She doesn't have much time to act. Mr. Reeves's GNI Group factory in Deer Park, Texas, last week won a $2.5 million contract to dispose of nearly 3.4 million gallons of napalm stored at the US Navy's Fallbrook Naval Facility near San Diego. The first shipments are expected to arrive as soon as this weekend.

Given the scary connotations of the word "napalm," federal officials and company representatives have been quick to note that napalm is more stable than gasoline, and that the recycling process will be safe. But critics argue the Navy and GNI have left many safety questions unanswered. With so little time left for citizen feedback, they charge, the napalm project is just another example of environmental racism, where hazardous wastes are processed in poor minority communities, with no consideration for public health.

"Industrial facilities follow the path of least resistance, into the barrios, the Indian reservations, and the inner city, areas that are perceived to be unorganized," says Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University in Atlanta. "So the dirtiest spot in Los Angeles is East L.A.; the dirtiest spot in Chicago is the South Side; and in Houston, 100 percent of the landfills are located in predominantly black neighborhoods."

Such a large-scale problem calls for a national solution, Dr. Bullard adds, but in the meantime, there are a growing number of cases where minority neighborhoods have fought * In May 1997, the predominantly black towns of Forest Grove and Center Springs, La., persuaded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject the application of an uranium-enrichment plant.

* Also in May 1997, the mainly black residents of Flint, Mich., successfully argued against the permit of an electric utility that planned to burn demolition wood containing lead-based paint.

* Last December, a Pennsylvania state court gave the go-ahead for a lawsuit brought by the mainly black town of Chester, Pa., against the state environmental agency for locating a waste facility in their town.

Indeed, the Navy has already had difficulty shedding the spare napalm. A previous plan to recycle the chemical in Indiana earlier this year was scrapped after protests from local communities.

But with some napalm shells in San Diego starting to leak, political pressure there was also mounting to get the napalm back on the road. Three congressmen from southern California have gone so far as holding up the Navy's appropriations bill in order to speed up the Texas contracting process.

For his part, GNI vice president Reeves can't understand what the fuss is about. "We're dealing with a nasty word, 'napalm,' " he says. "This is standard operating procedure. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is down at the 1 end of the scale."

As a jellied form of gasoline, napalm is actually more stable than a tank of unleaded, he says. For it to ignite, napalm requires two fuses and white phosphorus, which burns at an extremely high temperature. GNI will blend in some industrial solvents to thin out the napalm and allow it to flow through pipelines like other petroleum products. In the end, the thinned out napalm will be sold to cement kilns as fuel.

"The most vocal people who are opposed to this are from outside the area; they don't live in Deer Park," says Reeves, noting that most of the attendees of a meeting last week were supportive of GNI's napalm proposal. "They're all seeing that this is the same stuff that's been manufactured for decades here."

But it's that very familiarity that has bred contempt among Houston's environmentalists. Some locals are quick to rattle off statistics showing unusually high rates of cancer in communities along the ship channel, which contains more than 40 percent of the nation's oil-refining capacity. State health officials agree that such health complaints are common in East Harris County, but they are reluctant to pin the blame on pollution.

"It's true that the lung cancer rate for East Harris County is 50 percent higher than for the rest of the state," says Barry Wilson, an epidemiologist at the Texas Department of Health. "But I can't make a determination of cause." In the latest study of Deer Park, for instance, conducted last year, "We were not able to adjust for the smoking factor," or how many residents are smokers.

But don't look for Mrs. Land, an active member of an environmental group called the Grandparents of East Harris County, to sit idly by for all the results to come in. She once threatened to recruit local members of the notorious biker gang the Bandidos to join a protest against an ammonia plant in Cloverleaf, Texas.

Driving her well-worn Cadillac over a bridge above the channel on what she calls the "Toxic Tour," she says she's determined to stop the napalm project, no matter what.

"We're not trying to stop industry, because that's how all of us make our living," she says, pointing to the silver tubes and holding tanks of the refineries and plants that stretch to the horizon in all directions. "The whole idea is to try to make these people more responsible for what they do."

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