Welcome to Armageddon

A joint investigation by Salon and Rolling Stone reveals why the Bush administration hasn't found any weapons of mass destruction: It's looking in the wrong place.

Published March 23, 2004 8:13PM (EST)

Say you were a terrorist in the late 1990s, around the time Osama bin Laden was planning the attack on the World Trade Center, and you wanted to get your hands on some weapons of mass destruction. You could have tried to track them down in Iraq, at one of the chemical-weapons facilities that the Bush administration accused Saddam Hussein of operating. Of course, neither the United Nations nor the U.S. military has managed to find a single chemical weapon in Iraq, so you probably would have come away empty-handed.

Or you could have just paid a visit to Newport, Tenn., population 7,242. There, east of town, past the Pigeon River and the True Gospel Free Will Baptist Church and the county dump, you would have stopped near a gated drive that led up a steep slope known as Rock Hill. Beyond that gate, in a small wooden shed, you would have found what you were after. No intricate alarm system to disable, not even a padlock on the shed's door -- just a thin pine branch jammed in the hasp. And behind that door, canisters filled with PFIB, a deadly, lung-attacking gas restricted under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Invisible, odorless and lethal even in minute concentrations, PFIB -- or "p-fib," as some arms-industry insiders call it -- kills slowly and brutally. At first victims experience a headache, a cough, a fever, a tightness in the chest. But after six to eight hours, as fluids flood their lungs, they start to feel as though they're choking. It's known as "air hunger" -- a desperate desire for oxygen -- and for some victims it only gets worse. Soon they begin making pitiful gurgling sounds, coughing up phlegm and blood, unable to get enough air to form words. Within six to 48 hours they are dead, suffocated from within by what doctors sometimes call "dry-land drowning."

Yet despite the dangers of PFIB -- short for perfluoroisobutylene -- you would have had little trouble stealing enough of the deadly gas to wreak havoc in a subway or an office building. "If bin Laden had known that there were 23 cylinders of this stuff, all he had to do was hop a fence to get it -- literally," says Dean Ullock, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency. "A lot of this stuff was stored in a little garden shack in the back of the property, and all you would have had to do is walk in."

EPA officials stumbled across the shed packed with PFIB in 2000, when they were called in to shut down a private chemical laboratory on Rock Hill. As an on-scene coordinator for the EPA's Emergency Response and Removal Branch, the federal government's SWAT team for chemical disasters, Ullock has had to clean up some of the worst toxic hazards in the United States. But even he was horrified by what awaited him on that isolated hilltop in Tennessee. The lab contained about 7,000 gas cylinders and other containers -- many of them unlabeled and leaking -- filled with hundreds of potentially deadly chemicals. Among them were phosgene, the gas responsible for 80 percent of the chemical-warfare casualties during World War I, and PFIB, 10 times more deadly than phosgene. The PFIB, it turned out, had been manufactured for the U.S. Army a decade earlier for chemical-defense research. But such security risks, the Army insists, are not its problem. "Safety and security at private chemical facilities are the responsibility of that company," the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command said in a statement issued to Salon and Rolling Stone.

One of the Bush administration's main pretexts for invading Iraq was to keep such lethal substances away from terrorists -- a possibility that posed "the danger of a catastrophe that could be orders of magnitude worse than Sept. 11," in the words of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But chemical weapons made for the Pentagon itself often have wound up in the wrong place -- or disappeared completely. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently investigating some 200 sites in 35 states where the military and its contractors cannot account for missing chemical-warfare agents. Among the weapons already uncovered is a long-lost stash of deadly mustard gas buried less than five miles from the White House.

"One of the ultimate ironies is that for all of the U.S. government's finger-pointing at Iraq and other countries -- nations we're challenging to account for every one of their weapons of mass destruction -- our country is riddled with similar weapons that our government itself can't even find," says Elizabeth Crowe, an organizer for the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of citizens living near chemical-weapons sites.

And those 200 military sites represent only a small fraction of the U.S. facilities where chemicals with the potential to inflict mass casualties are manufactured. According to the Army's surgeon general, industrial chemicals in the United States are second only to bioterrorism as a threat to national security. By the government's own estimate, there are 15,000 chemical plants that contain large quantities of potentially deadly compounds. Many of the facilities have been shown to employ little security, offering terrorists easy access to chemicals that could be used as weapons of mass destruction.

The tale of how the U.S. government lost track of its own PFIB on a hilltop in Appalachia begins with a brilliant chemist. He wasn't a mad scientist, say those who knew him, but he was so consumed with his research, so confident in his own skills, that he never paused to consider the consequences of his recklessness. "He was just like your next-door neighbor, your friend, your buddy, your pal," says a former employee. "He didn't want to hurt anyone."

It begins in a place called Armageddon.

Edward Tyczkowski doesn't look like someone who would leave a bunch of chemical warfare agents lying around. Distinguished, courteous and soft-spoken, he has a shock of brushed-back white hair that is amazingly thick for a man of 79 years. With a Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke, Tyczkowski seems more like a tweedy retired professor than the guy responsible for creating the dangerous mess in Tennessee -- a place that an EPA official has called "one of the five worst sites in the history of the southeast United States."

Even his harshest critics agree that Tyczkowski is a first-rate scientist with an impressive résumé. Over the past half-century, he has conducted groundbreaking research for private industry, made rocket propellants for the U.S. military, and supplied blue-chip corporate clients with exotic chemicals, many of them unavailable from any other source in the world. But his extraordinary intelligence has never extended to public relations. The warning signs were evident as far back as 1970, when Tyczkowski opened a chemical company in a poor neighborhood of Durham, N.C. The company's name, he says, was "sort of a joke between my wife and me." He called it Armageddon Chemical.

What Armageddon produced was no joke. Tyczkowski specialized in producing compounds made with fluorine, a versatile element that has helped scientists prevent tooth decay, make medicines, manufacture computer chips and create Teflon. It is also very reactive and corrosive and can be extremely toxic. That's why fluorine is often used to make chemical weapons, including PFIB and Sarin, the nerve gas released in Tokyo's subways in 1995 by members of a religious cult, killing 12 and injuring more than 5,000. Company records indicate that Armageddon's many government clients included the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, the nation's principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense.

But according to those who knew him, Tyczkowski's main motivation was neither patriotism nor profits. "Ed just wanted to make chemicals," says a former employee. "He was happy in the lab." Even after years in his profession, he was like a brainy kid with a brand-new chemistry set: just as excited and perhaps just as heedless of the risks. "I got the impression from him that no one was as smart as he was about anything, particularly when it came to chemistry," says Dan Hawkins, an official with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation who spent years investigating Tyczkowski. "And in a way, that's right -- he probably knew more about fluorine than anyone else in the country. It was like he was above it all -- that he was so intelligent that the laws didn't apply to him."

The trouble at Armageddon started with a side business that Tyczkowski spun off to investors while maintaining an operational role. Located in a residential neighborhood just yards from family homes, the plant -- which recycled industrial solvents -- was essentially a large metal shack. Stacked high in the dusty yard outside were hundreds of barrels of hazardous waste, some rusting, some leaking, some spray-painted with question marks because the exact chemical identity of their contents was unknown. "There were kids running through the site with open barrels around," recalls Steve Unruhe, a local high school teacher who campaigned against the facility. "It was unbelievable." Then, in 1983, a cloud of toxic vapor escaped from the recycling plant. Residents were evacuated for more than five hours and two firefighters were overcome by fumes, even though they were wearing masks and air packs. It's not clear the release posed any real danger to the community -- but the company did little to cooperate with city officials, and Tyczkowski's imperious attitude only helped galvanize opposition to the plant. "Life is hazardous," he said at the time, dismissing the risks. Under pressure from the city and state, the recycling facility was forced to close two years later.

But the controversy did nothing to dampen the U.S. military's enthusiasm for Tyczkowski. Armageddon Chemical continued to receive defense contracts. In a letter to the scientist dated Feb. 11, 1987, August J. Muller, a research chemist at Aberdeen, praised his "excellent service in the past" and predicted he would receive a new contract "in the near future."

Unfortunately, the Army apparently didn't bother to monitor how Tyczkowski disposed of the dangerous chemicals he used and produced. In 1995, a customer who was getting his car fixed at an auto shop next door to Armageddon wandered through an open gate at the site, by then abandoned, and discovered barrels of toxic chemicals -- including cyanide, mercury, lead and various acids -- strewn inside and outside the building. When city officials demanded that Tyczkowski clean up the mess, he simply packed up many of the chemicals and shipped them to a new lab he had set up in Newport, Tenn.

Amazingly, the federal government helped pay for his move. His new company, the Flura Corp., was located on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest in a poverty-stricken area of Appalachia that Esquire magazine labeled "the acknowledged moonshine capital of the world." Tyczkowski promised to create dozens of jobs in a county where unemployment was running at more than 17 percent. In return, the feds financed a state-administered $225,000 loan to help him buy Rock Hill Laboratory, an abandoned facility in Newport that had previously conducted research on chemical weapons for the military. Tyczkowski didn't bother to mention his troubles at Armageddon on his loan application, and even some state regulators weren't sure what he was doing on the hill outside of town. "I knew that they made gases," recalls Hawkins, "but I thought they probably just sold oxygen or dental gases or something." Hawkins soon learned otherwise. As laid-back as Tyczkowski is aloof, Hawkins projects a frazzled, regular-guy demeanor -- think Columbo with a Tennessee twang. On March 3, 1997, he and a co-worker arrived at Flura to investigate toxic wastes that had been dumped on the property by the lab's previous occupants -- a formidable environmental problem in itself. Among the compounds known to have been manufactured at the lab was BZ, an extremely potent chemical-warfare agent that attacks the central nervous system. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the U.S. military maintained weaponized stocks of BZ -- also known as "agent buzz" because its effects on the brain, which include hallucinations and memory loss, are thought to be even more powerful than those of LSD or mescaline.

Not taking any chances, Hawkins and his co-worker had brought along protective moonsuits. The two men were standing in the parking lot of the lab, about to climb into the bio-gear, when they heard a loud pop, followed by a hiss. They looked up to see a cloud of yellowish gas leaving the facility and heading their way.

"We thought it was steam at first, but then it didn't dissipate like steam would," Hawkins says. "By the time we realized that it wasn't steam, there was nothing we could do about it. We had nowhere to run." Within seconds, the two men were engulfed by a sulfury-smelling cloud.

After it drifted past, Hawkins set out in search of Tyczkowski to find out what had happened. He was alarmed to discover that the gas might have been sulfur tetrafluoride -- potentially fatal when inhaled -- and equally disturbed by the chemist's dismissive response.

"You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Hawkins remembers Tyczkowski telling him.

Even more unsettling was what Hawkins observed inside the lab that day. Entering by a back door, he found the facility in disarray, its storage areas overcrowded with containers showing obvious signs of rust and decay. Realizing there was "a tremendous problem" at the facility, Hawkins began keeping a close watch on Flura. In March of 1999, having received reports of worsening conditions at the lab, he returned for an unscheduled inspection.

What he found terrified him. There were leaks in a 20,000-gallon storage tank filled with hazardous wastes. There were highly toxic gases stored in containers that were about to breach. There were explosive chemicals that had been allowed to recrystalize, ready to detonate at the slightest shock. And perhaps most alarmingly, there were canisters of PFIB that "looked like they had been laying out rusting for about 100 years."

Although the military initially denied to local media that it had done business with Tyczkowski, an investigation by Salon and Rolling Stone confirms that the Army awarded him a $137,000 contract in 1990 to produce the PFIB for what was then known as the Chemical and Biological Defense Command. The purpose of the gas remains classified -- but at the time it was purchased, U.S. military officials were concerned that the Russians, and possibly other former Eastern Bloc states, had developed PFIB as a weapon. One Tennessee official who has investigated the sale says Army scientists used it to study how to protect U.S. soldiers. "They probably killed a lot of lab rats with the stuff," the official said. After completing the Army's order, Tyczkowski simply held on to surplus canisters of PFIB, selling it as a research chemical.

Hawkins was no stranger to toxic substances, but in 20 years of environmental work, he had never seen anything that frightened him as much as Tyczkowski's lab. "Nothing ever came close to this from a purely 'this will hurt you today' standpoint," he says. "I was shocked. I was scared. I was in a state of disbelief at all the things that he had. Some of this stuff was so far off the chart as far as being dangerous. It was just the worst of all nightmares."

The military has a terrible track record at keeping tabs on chemical weapons stored outside its nine official stockpiles. From World War I through the 1970s, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, chemical weapons were manufactured, stored or dumped at scores of military bases, private contractors and other "non-stockpiled" facilities across the country. Because of poor record-keeping, most of the sites are dangerous question marks: The military simply doesn't know what's there.

The military insists that it's unlikely that terrorists would be able to locate any of the lost chemical weapons, many of which were buried in unmarked and unmapped dumps, but the prospect of such a discovery is horrifying. Less than five miles from the White House, in an affluent neighborhood of Washington, investigators have dug up 75 shells and other containers filled with chemical warfare materiel since the 1990s. Some of these munitions contained mustard agent, an oily liquid that can cause severe blistering to the skin, blindness and death. Although the munitions were manufactured at a research facility that stood on the site during World War I, tests on some of the samples showed that the deadly compound "had not degraded at all over the course of 90 years," says Chuck Twing of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mustard gas, of course, was one of the deadly chemicals that the Bush administration accused Baghdad of possessing prior to the invasion of Iraq. Another was nitric acid, a colorless, highly corrosive poisonous liquid that gives off suffocating fumes when exposed to air (although nitric acid itself is not listed on the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention). In October of 2002, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst warned that "a large new chemical complex" in northern Iraq "will produce nitric acid, which can be used not only in explosives and missile fuel, but also for the purification of uranium." In fact, a far more immediate security threat came from Nitrochem, a military contractor in Newell, Penn. In 2002, the EPA included Nitrochem on a list of more than 100 chemical plants across the country that could each place a million or more people at risk if attacked. Despite the danger, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review who investigated security at the plant had no problem entering the grounds and walking around for more than an hour without encountering a single guard or employee. Just outside the plant, he found children strolling alongside huge rail cars filled with nitric acid and other deadly chemicals.

Like the chemicals at Tyczkowski's laboratories in North Carolina and Tennessee, some of the substances in Pennsylvania were manufactured for the U.S. military. According to federal records obtained by Salon and Rolling Stone, Nitrochem and its predecessor at the site, Welland Chemical, were longtime chemical suppliers for the U.S. Navy's Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, Md. Even more frightening, such sites make up a tiny fraction of U.S. chemical plants where deadly compounds are made.

The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention -- ratified by 161 nations, including the United States -- bans a small number of chemicals, such as sarin and mustard gas, which have been employed as military weapons in the past, and restricts the use of several other substances, including PFIB. But there are hundreds of other potentially deadly chemicals, used every day by American industry, which are not covered by the convention. Such "ethyl-methyl bad stuff" constitutes a real terrorist threat, says Amy Smithson, a chemical-weapons expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential think tank in Washington, D.C. "An attack employing industrial chemicals would be easier to pull off than one with classic chemical warfare agents, such as sarin," she says. "And the results would sadly be much the same if this took place in a major metropolitan area."

George F. Mick, who helped spearhead the cleanup at Tyczkowski's lab in Tennessee, puts it even more bluntly. "Go to the waste-water treatment facility nearest you," he says. "You're going to see things like one-ton cylinders of phosgene or chlorine. If you take one of those one-tonners in a box truck and release it in a populated area, you're going to kill thousands. That stuff is readily available."

The Bush administration acknowledges the pressing nature of such risks -- yet it has done almost nothing to improve security at chemical plants. If anything, it has made matters worse. Last year, under pressure from the chemical industry, the White House transferred oversight of the industry from the EPA -- which was attempting to toughen security -- to the new Department of Homeland Security. As chemical lobbyists and administration officials are well aware, Homeland Security does not have the regulatory authority to require the industry to adopt stricter measures.

The Republican-dominated Congress has been equally unwilling to act. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., introduced a bill last year to improve safety and enhance security oversight at chemical facilities. But in the face of a formidable lobbying effort against the legislation, Corzine's bill has languished. In October, a Senate committee passed a loophole-ridden measure -- written with the support of the Bush administration -- that allows industry to self-regulate without any new hazard-reduction requirements. But even that watered-down legislation has stalled.

"The industry has just completely stonewalled the involvement of the government in this whole process," says a frustrated Corzine. "We've been looking all over God's green acre for chemical weapons in Iraq and other nations while largely ignoring chemical security at home."

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Ed Tyczkowski doesn't see what all the fuss was about. To him, the problem was government officials meddling in something they didn't understand. For months after officials discovered his stockpile on Rock Hill, Tyczkowski resisted orders to clean it up. State and federal regulators, he told the local media, were exaggerating the dangers at his lab to "justify their jobs."

Then, on April 3, 2000, Tyczkowski met EPA officials on the front steps of his lab. His finances, it turned out, were in as big a mess as his chemicals. Forced into bankruptcy, he had decided to give up. "He literally handed us the keys and walked away," says Dean Ullock, who coordinated the team that took over the site.

Ullock is something of a natural-born troubleshooter. In January of 1982, when he was a 21 years old and serving as a diver for the Army, he was given the gruesome assignment of pulling corpses from the submerged fuselage of an Air Florida jet that had plunged into the Potomac River after taking off from Washington's National Airport. Ullock can still describe how some people died holding tight to their seats and how he had to peel back their fingers so that he could carry them up through the icy green water to their loved ones. It was grim and exhausting work, but something about the mix of danger and do-goodism hooked Ullock. Crisis became a career.

The Air Florida disaster, caused by inadequate de-icing, also taught Ullock that small oversights can lead to horrific consequences. He called Tyczkowski's lab "the sleeping giant" because of its potential for a deadly fire or a toxic release, and he went to great lengths to make sure the beast wasn't awakened. His team established a "hot zone" on top of the hill, sealed off by two rows of barbed wire fencing, which no one could enter without a protective suit. They put rescue teams on standby and erected a huge warning siren to alert hundreds of local residents that they might have only minutes to save their lives. They removed some 1,500 tons of contaminated dirt -- most of it from dump sites left by earlier occupants -- and razed Tyczkowski's lab. They established a remote air-monitoring system, designed to detect escaping toxins, that was later replicated at the World Trade Center cleanup, and they created an innovative system for neutralizing PFIB on-site. And because the possibility that the deadly chemicals might fall into the wrong hands "was considered a pretty overwhelming hazard," according to an official familiar with the site, the EPA posted guards around the clock to monitor the gate and patrol the perimeter.

These days, Tyczkowski finds himself back in Durham, where, a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, he is attempting to make a new start. Although he declined to discuss the specifics of the Flura debacle, he agreed to meet for a beer in an empty Mexican restaurant one afternoon. He and his wife, he explains, are living on their Social Security and whatever he can scrounge together from his latest entrepreneurial enterprise -- one far different than those of the past. "Right now I've got a book business. I buy and sell used books on eBay and Amazon," Tyczkowski explains. "I have to make a living since the EPA put me out of business."

In the end, the state of Tennessee had to write off $125,000 of Tyczkowski's $225,000 loan. Of the 35 jobs he promised to create, only a fraction ever materialized. The EPA's cleanup cost $8.5 million. No matter how you look at it, what happened on Rock Hill was a tragedy -- though perhaps one inspired less by greed than by old-fashioned hubris. Dean Ullock, for one, thinks that after half a century as a chemist, Tyczkowski simply became overconfident in his skills: "He's a brilliant man. He just had absolutely no regard for environmental laws, for storage and disposal laws and for worker safety. He was so comfortable around these chemicals that he may have taken them for granted."

Unfortunately, the Pentagon also seems to be taking the risks posed by the case for granted. A federal criminal probe of Tyczkowski's activities had to be abandoned -- in part because the U.S. Army was less than cooperative, according to a source familiar with the investigation. Civil penalties against the scientist are expected to be announced in the near future.

If you travel east of Newport today, past the Pigeon River, the True Gospel Free Will Baptist Church and the county dump, you'll find yourself at that same gated drive leading up the steep forested slope. Beyond that gate, however, you'll be hard-pressed to believe that not long ago this was one of the most dangerous places in the United States. Wildflowers grow where Tyczkowski's cluttered laboratory used to stand. Oaks, pecans, walnuts and hickories tower over ground once inhabited by men and women in vulcanized orange bio-suits.

The top of the hill is still fenced up, but that's mostly a formality. The EPA now considers the land up there so safe that it has allowed a Boy Scout troop to take the place over as a campground. The scouts have dug a fire pit, and on warm nights, they sit around it, cooking burgers and singing songs. Then they roll out their sleeping bags, stare into the sky, and wait for sleep, listening to the crackle of the fire. And sometimes, just before it comes, there's a moment when the night is so still and the air tastes so pure and the heavens seem so close that those boys might suddenly feel as though they live in a world where nothing bad can ever happen.

By Miles Harvey

Miles Harvey is the author of "The Island of Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime," an international bestseller in 2000. He is currently working on another book for Random House.

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