Recently in Nashville, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) workers spent a day picking bits of once-frozen TV dinners off Interstate 440 after a tractor-trailer flipped over a guardrail.
The driver, Peter Wayne Meadows of Okolona, Mississippi, lost control of his vehicle while trying to maneuver a curve. Fortunately for other drivers, and TDOT workers, Meadows was hauling frozen dinners instead of hazardous waste.
As of July, the U.S. Army has shipped 103 truckloads of neutralized nerve agent VX on I-40 through Memphis. The chemical, currently stockpiled in Newport, Indiana, is being shipped to Port Arthur, Texas, for incineration.
It's the possibility of a wreck that has members of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG) and the national Sierra Club worried.
"Nobody knows what happens if you get [the neutralized VX nerve agent] on your skin," says Elizabeth Crowe of the CWWG, an environmental action group promoting safe elimination of chemical weapons. "If you get a pinpoint amount of [straight] VX on your skin, it is enough to kill you."
The CWWG and Sierra Club are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the shipments. A federal judge in Indianapolis heard arguments last week and is expected to make a decision this week. The Army has voluntarily ceased shipments until that decision.
Army spokesperson Greg Mahall says they plan to ship a total of 450 truckloads of neutralized VX by December 2009 but that the chemical is a caustic solution that's no more harmful than a truckload of "Drano or other drain cleaner."
"Essentially," Mahall says, "if you're exposed to a nerve agent, it shuts down your central nervous system and results in death."
Though Mahall says the shipments are neutralized, depositions by managers at the Newport Chemical Depot suggest otherwise. In documents presented to the court last week, the managers said samples from tanker spillage showed concentrations of the VX nerve agent in the neutralized byproduct.
"If something were to happen and that nerve agent were to get out of its container, we would have a huge disaster," says Rita Harris, environmental justice coordinator for the local Sierra Club. "It really shouldn't be coming ... through the center of town. It's scary because there are so many different accidents that could happen."
Jeremy Heidt of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says they are in constant contact with the drivers as they approach the state border.
"We would stop them in Missouri before they cross over the border if they were to arrive in Memphis during rush hour," says Heidt.
Local first responders are also notified as the shipments come through.
But the CWWG and Sierra Club would rather the Army dispose of the chemicals on-site in Indiana.
"It wasn't ever a good idea to ship this waste off-site," says Crowe. "Now that we know there's actually more VX nerve agent within the [neutralized chemical], that makes it an even worse idea."
The Army claims VX was never used in any American war, but there is some suspicion that Iraq used the chemical against Iran in 1988.