Federal officials in four states are checking to determine if deadly chemical waste contaminated with dioxin, one of the most potent pesticide compounds known, was shipped into their regions from an Arkansas pesticide plant.
Environmental Protection Agency officials said they have contacted investigators in Missouri, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee about possible shipment of dioxin-laden waste from a pesticide plant under investigation in Jacksonville, Ark.
Meanwhile Arkansas officials said Friday they have issued an administrative order directing the Vertac Corp., which owns the Jacksonville plant and an adjoining landfill, to begin immediately to contain hazardous waste contaminated with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. The waste has been stored and buried at the site just outside Little Rock.
Arkansas officials, stunned by what they say is the worst environmental problem they have encountered, said that a medical team of toxic chemical specilists from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City will visit the Vertac plant to examine workers.
Since the late 1940s various manufacturers at the site have produced the controversial pesticide 2,4,5-T and other toxic chemicals. Federal officials in Washington, who, with state health authorities, have been investigating the site, said last week that more than 30,000 gallons of water contaminated with dioxin is on the ground at the 93-acre Jacksonville site.
Officials said they have found toxic chemicals from pesticides produced at the plant in Rocky Branch Creek, which flows by the site. The state closed off the stream last month, but so far, they said, about half of the test samples they have examined from the creek show no trace of dioxin leaking from the plant.
Arkansas health officials said that they have not uncovered any signs of unusual problems among families near the Jacksonville site. Many of the residents are transient military families from Little Rock Air Force Base, they said.
Federal inspectors last month said they found 3,500 rusting drums containing pesticide waste contaminated with dioxin stored at the plant site. About 600 drums were leaking into a large pool of water behind an earth dike contructed by Vertac around the storage site, they said. The water showed 500 parts per billion of dioxin, according to state investigators.
Last March, when federal investigators tested the contents of some leaking drums, they said they found dioxin at levels of 40 parts per million, the highest that the EPA said it had ever encountered in chemical waste.
Dioxin is the waste product produced during the manufacture of 2,4,5-T. Researchers have found that it can cause cancerous tumors in laboratory animals at doses as small as five parts per trillion.
The pesticide 2,4,5-T has become highly controversial recently because of claims from women sprayed with it in the Pacific Northwest that it caused them to miscarry. Vietnam veterans who have sued the military claim the pesticide - known as Agent Orange - has caused nerve problems in soldiers sprayed during defoliation maneuvers in Vietnam.
After lawsuits were filed this year by both groups, EPA ordered most uses of the pesticide halted in the United States. The production of the pesticide by Vertac was halted at the same time.A parent company of Vertac has owned the site since 1974, and before that the Hercules Chemical Corp. of Wilmington, Del., used the site to produce 14.2 million pounds of Agent Orange for the military.
Last month EPA officials said they planned to move hastily to force Vertac and Hercules to clean up the Jacksonville site, calling it one of the most serious hazardous waste situations in the nation.
Sources said last week that the administrative order, issued by the state in consultation with the EPA, was used instead of direct court action because Vertac and Hercules have indicated a willingness to help in the cleanup.
The order outlines a number of protective procedures for waste stored above ground and requires the chemical producers to cap the underground dump areas with a sealant to ensure that toxic material will not run off the site.
Federal officials said they ordered tests of hazardous waste sites in the four other states to determine if they got shipments of waste containing dioxin from the Jacksonville site.
Dioxin is considered so hazardous that there is no site in the United States licensed to handle its disposal.
"Even if there was such a place to send it, once it got out that they were getting it, there would be such an outcry that it would have to be removed," and EPA official said.
Authorities said they did not know what they would do with the dioxin-contaminated water at the site or other areas of the landfill that have shown signs of dioxin contamination.
Missouri officials said recently they have asked EPA to check a landfill near Kansas City that they said got 150,000 gallons of waste in 1976 from the Jacksonville site. The material was shipped authorities said, by the Transvaal Co., a sister firm of Vertac.
Missouri authorities said they granted permission to Transvaal to ship 50,000 gallons of the waste. They said they halted the shipments when they found that the firm had shipped about 150,000 gallons. The waste buried at the Kansas City site was not inspected and Missouri authorities said they did not know what was in it beyond what they called a "vague and general" description by Transvaal.
"It was tested at the start," said Rick Roberts head of the Missouri solid waste division. "But no one looked at if after that. We don't know how honest the generator was in his description of what that waste contained."
Federal officials said they were checking to determine if similar contaminated waste was sent from Jacksonville to Memphis, Baton Rouge, La., and Catoose, Okla.