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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Chemical weapons incineration plant on Johnston Atoll

This is a reprint from Corina Vacco’s blog on 8/10/13. Corina’s novel MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN is a Delacorte winner for a first YA novel. You can read my reviews of MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
Here’s my article:

In 1990 I lived on Guam and worked as a political reporter and foreign correspondent for the Pacific Daily News, owned by Gannett—renown for its international wire service and USA Today. I’ll never forget when I flew to Oahu with my camera, tape recorder, and reporter’s notebook to prepare for a choice assignment. As a taxi drove me from the Honolulu airport we were stopped to allow U.S. President George H. Bush’s motorcade to pass. No, I wasn’t there to interview President Bush. Any number of reporters could do that. Instead, I was selected as only one of seven Americans and 75 journalists worldwide to cover the first incineration of chemical munitions on Johnston Atoll.

At the end of WWII in 1945 and afterward, countries stockpiled chemical munitions, mostly mustard gas, which causes blistering on the skin and damages the respiratory system, and nerve gas, which destroys the nervous system. The United States stored about 6 1/2 percent of the world’s chemical weapons at Johnston Atoll, 800 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

After 45 years the metal canisters were rusting and leaking. Something had to be done. But how could dangerous gas be destroyed without endangering people and animals, and causing catastrophic damage to soil, air and water? How could the nations work together when none of them trusted each other? Finally, in 1990 everything changed politically. So much so that East Germany dismantled a wall separating it from West Germany since the end of WWII. When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germany allowed the U.S. to take 100,000 chemical weapons out. The U.S. government built a chemical munitions disposal plant on Johnson Atoll.

When I arrived at a U.S. military base on Oahu they gave us reporters a briefing about the chemical gasses, then they issued us gas masks, hypodermic needles filled with antidote serum, and a green Army knapsack. The military man took about a dozen of us at a time into a room with our gas masks on and said to raise our hands if we smelled rotten bananas. They released gasses and I smelled rotten bananas! Even though I hate bananas, it wasn’t my imagination. My small gas mask was too big. I had to leave the room until they could find an extra-small gas mask for my head, then send me into the gas chamber again. The second time I didn’t smell rotten bananas, thank goodness, or I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to the atoll.

We reporters loaded onto a military plane and flew to the tiny atoll. On Johnston Atoll our military guide showed us metal Quonset Huts where the munitions were stored. He said that for decades they would send in rabbits to gauge whether any gas canisters were leaking. If the rabbit came out unharmed, the munitions were not leaking gas. If the rabbit didn’t come out, they knew gas was escaping from the rusted munitions and the rabbit had died.

The metal canisters they showed us were rusted. It was scary to think about what would happen if mustard and nerve gas was released into the air, coral reefs and ocean. It was understandable why the Pacific Nation leaders were especially wary of the munitions being stored, and incinerated, on Johnston Atoll. It weighed heavy on me to write an article about something that would have such serious consequences on people, sea life, and the environment. Would I even be able to understand the technical jargon, or what I was being shown? I knew it was the job of the U.S. military and civilians giving us the tour to convince us reporters of the safety of incinerating the chemical munitions. It was my responsibility to ask probing questions.

As we toured the incineration facility I understood the abatement (filtering) system for a reason that had nothing to do with my experience as a reporter or anything I learned at a university. I understood what they showed us and described because I had grown up in a steel mill and factory town in NE Ohio. I did ask probing questions. Since I was a political reporter, it also made me feel better knowing that another of the American reporters selected was an environmental reporter from Honolulu.

Ten years later, in November 2000, the last chemical weapons were incinerated on Johnston Atoll. (I left the newsroom as a copy editor for the San Antonio Express-News one year prior--Nov. 1999.) The incineration plant was dismantled two years later.

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