11 February 2003
HEMPHILL, Texas - A private environmental consultant said he is concerned with how NASA has moved to clean up toxic debris from the space shuttle Columbia.
As an example, Danny Brashear of Hemphill cited a large stainless steel ball that he found in San Augustine County, just across the county line from Sabine County. At least two other similar balls have been found, one each in Nacogdoches and San Augustine counties.
"I grabbed my GPS equipment and came out to help them recover debris," said Brashear, who formerly worked for the state for more than 20 years. Brashear said he found four-foot by four-food stainless steel sphere.
"This was the fourth or fifth (piece of debris) I came to. I was pretty taken aback. The previous pieces I'd seen were pretty small.
"It was so surreal the way the whole thing happened, like a science fiction movie," he said.
"It was shiny stainless steel _ it didn't look as if it had just fallen from the sky, there was no impact crater," he said. Nor did he see any broken tree limbs in the woody spot where it had landed, he said.
"It was glowing orange from heat, it was so hot. The San Augustine volunteer fireman who found it said a liquid was coming out. There was a bleach smell. I could see it was vaporizing into a yellow haze and turning the trees yellow. I decided that was enough and I left."
Brashear, who has overseen the cleanup of "dozens and dozens" of hazardous chemical spill cleanups, said he immediately called the Sabine County Sheriff's Office, which referred the ball to San Augustine County.
"I was a little disturbed that they didn't immediately come in and put a containment or barrier to cut it off from the stormwater around it. I have a good feeling it started raining before containment. If this had rolled off a truck, (the Environmental Protection Agency) would have required immediate stormwater control," Brashear said.
The general area where Brashear's sphere landed is made up of several hills and low swampy areas.
The EPA requires private companies handling hazardous chemicals to have a pre-contracted emergency hazardous materials team, according to Brashear.
"So all they have to do is get on the phone and within hours you see bulldozers pulling up contaminated ground - ask permission later, time is of the essence," he described. "The risk factor increases exponentially with time. The state and federal government, though, are notorious for not following their own rules."
Brashear said the worst-case scenario has already happened - space shuttle Columbia exploding across East Texas. Failure to find, contain and remove any hazardous materials presents a whole new slate of future "worst-case scenarios," he said.
"How many years go by before someone finds it, forgetting about the shuttle debris and decides to cut it in half and make a barbecue pit? " Brashear said. "What is the likelihood of a child coming across it?
"I think they are shorting their resources on this spill," he said Wednesday. "They need more helicopters and people, soldiers doing searches."
Two San Augustine volunteer firefighters, Bob Ozee and Spencer Boaz, discovered the smooth silver sphere about 10:30 a.m., last Saturday.
"It had a kind of yellowish-gold light coming out of it," Ozee said. From about 20 yards away they noticed it had "a kind of sulfur smell to it."
The volunteers stayed with the ball for about 45 minutes to an hour before Brashear came along and warned them there could be health hazards. After taping the road off, they went to the Chinquapin Command Post, and then the hospital.
Chest X-rays were taken to get a base-line reading in the event of complications, Ozee said.
"They wouldn't let us put our clothes back on until they were washed," Ozee said. "They were going to keep our clothes, but then decided to let us take them home and bag them up."
As destiny would have it, a NASA employee from Florida on Thursday suffered a flat tire on his Jeep. It was Ozee's shop where the NASA employee sought help from.
"When he asked me what he owed me, I said information," Ozee said.
That was how Ozee learned the ball was recovered by NASA Thursday and that it contained nitrogen tetroxide, used as a rocket fuel. The other chemical containing spheres were distinguished by a dippled metal texture and a composite wound fiberglass coating, Ozee learned.
Thursday night, "Spencer came by and said he had knot in his chest and asked if I had any problems," Ozee said.
NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said the shuttle contained nitrogen tetroxide, ammonia and monomethyl hydrazine.
Nitrogen textroxide, an oxidizer, has a bleach-like smell and can irritate the skin, eyes and mucus membranes.
There is a possible "24-hour delayed reaction: build up of fluid in the lungs, can result in respiratory failure," Braukus said. "Amounts surviving descent are unlikely to cause human health hazard."
According to the International Chemical Safety Cards, the chemical is not combustible itself but increases the combustible level of surrounding items and in the presence of moisture will "attack" steel.
Monomethyl hydrazine is a carcinogen with an ammonia -like odor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also could irritate the skin, eyes and mucus membranes, Braukus said. The chemical has poor warning characteristics.
Ammonia, on the other hand, has good warning properties with its strong smell. It also an irritant to mucus membranes, skin and eyes, he said.
David Passey, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that the agency doesn't believe shuttle debris toxicity is a threat to groundwater.
"For small sites, we do not expect to see any long-term effects," he said.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stated in a press release Thursday that a strike team was working in East Texas to assess water, air and soil quality issues resulting from Columbia debris as early as last Saturday.
"TCEQ teams are now clearing debris from a wide variety of sites throughout 14 counties," the press release stated. "The teams Sunday concentrated on locating and clearing debris from 30 schools."
Christine S. Diamond writes for The Lufkin Daily News.