Burning nerve gas makes me 'volatile'

  • Deadly smokestack collage

    Diane Sylvain

For the past two years, I have actively opposed the construction of massive chemical weapons incinerators, both in Tooele County, Utah, where I live and at seven other sites across the nation where chemical weapons are stockpiled. As common folks like me (I'm a librarian) who get involved in controversial issues often say, "It's been an education."

I now know more about the grim chemistry of burning nerve gas than I ever cared to. But I've learned some startling lessons, too. For example, I understand why burning tens of thousands of tons of deadly chemical agents directly upwind from tens of thousands of Utah citizens makes sense to the military.

The Army argues that incineration is the only viable tool developed so far to destroy its aging chemical weapons stockpile. On this point, they make their best case. Having bought into incineration technology very early on, we have ignored promising alternatives. The prestigious National Research Council recently reported on several possibilities, such as "supercritical water oxidation," which do not vent potentially dangerous emissions into the air we breathe, as does "open stack" incineration. Developing one of these alternatives could have tremendous benefits, since the world is in dire need of a cleaner and safer way to deal with toxic waste we produce.

Incineration makes organizational sense to the military, which has become accustomed to big budgets, big projects and the influence and opportunities that go with them. At a time when budgets are being slashed, weapons systems cancelled, bases closed, and when friendly defense contractors are going belly-up, building incinerators at a billion dollars a pop has to be an appealing fall-back strategy.

Incineration is big business and offers post-military career opportunities in consulting, sitting on boards and offering expertise.

The military needs a means of dealing with thousands of toxic waste sites created during the Cold War. The need to rid the world of chemical weapons may be a convenient wedge for the military to construct regional incinerators to burn chemical weapons first, and then endless tons of other poisons hidden behind high-security fences.

Incineration solves a major problem for the Army that the so-called "closed-loop" alternatives do not: liability. In a closed-loop system, it is fairly clear where the bad stuff came from, where it went, what happened to it, and where any residue is now. Once you put something up an open stack, uncertainty also rises. Chemical changes, dispersion and effects are difficult to face.

No document or spokesperson will admit that the Army wants to preserve its privileges and power, or that avoiding liability is one of the Army's motives. But the stated reasons an organization does something and the real reasons are often not the same. It is important to get to the basic motives that drive the military. If we do not, we cannot protect ourselves.

Make no mistake about it, protection is required. Incineration, after all, has increasingly been discredited. A growing body of evidence suggests that incinerators do not destroy toxic wastes completely. In the case of a chemical-weapons incinerator, this becomes a crucial question since lethal doses of nerve agent are measured in milligrams. There is also evidence that such incinerators emit dioxins and furans as byproducts of combustion - substances among the most carcinogenic known. Dioxins are famous for their ability to pass easily into the environment, food chain, bloodstream and cells.

Questions about the wisdom of incineration have led the EPA to place a moratorium on incinerator building and to review existing incinerator operations and licenses.

Incineration is also wildly expensive. Construction costs for the chemical-weapons incinerator almost completed in Tooele County will probably run over a half-billion dollars. Since the government plans to build seven other incinerators to destroy our chemical-weapons stockpile, billions more will be spent to operate these facilities. If something goes wrong, the cost of the damage and cleanup could be astronomical.

And something could go wrong: Incineration is inherently dangerous, especially when you are burning bombs and missiles bonded to nerve gas. Human error could result in a fire or explosion; the Army's own worst case scenario allows for 24,000 Utah fatalities.

There is no need here to recount the stories of secret nuclear tests, tragic experiments on unsuspecting victims, the cost overruns, extravagance, cover-ups and lies. A close examination of the military's chemical-weapons program raises doubts about sincerity when officials profess concern for health and safety, and about competence when they claim their incinerator is practically fail-safe.

The military's best minds and billions of tax dollars were applied to the problems associated with building chemical weapons. But, these weapons were not designed so that the explosives and chemical agents that are bonded together into missiles and bombs could be easily separated for disposal. Separating the explosives from the chemical agents has been the most challenging aspect of designing an incineration process.

If this is a case of massive oversight, of failing to understand the implications of the weapons they were building, should we believe the solution they have devised is any more insightful and complete than the process that caused the problem in the first place?

Those driving the chemical demilitarization program are indignant when their technical competence or concern for civilian safety are challenged.

I am considered "controversial" and "volatile" because of my opposition to the incinerator they are building in my backyard. Others who dare to question the military and its science have been labeled "emotional" and "uninformed." Yet given the Army's record and reputation, isn't a critical skepticism appropriate?

The military was allowed unprecedented power and leadership to fight the Cold War. During the peace and the multi(trillion?)-dollar cleanup of the military mess left behind, citizens must be in charge. Accountability must be the guiding principle now. Just as secrecy was the rule before, openness must be the new rule to avoid the old mistakes.

Governor-appointed citizens' advisory committees can play a key role in ensuring that communities in the path of proposed chemical-weapons incinerators will understand the issues that face them and that civilians will be protected, consulted, obeyed.

Utah's incinerator, the first of its kind, aside from a test facility in the Pacific, is up and being tested. At this stage, there is little chance to insist on alternatives here. Our citizens' advisory committee is newly appointed and struggling to catch up.

We must insist that our group is given the resources and official backing it needs to monitor the chemical demilitarization process, raise citizen awareness, encourage citizen involvement, keep key information open and accessible, and make the military accountable every step of the way.

For other communities where incinerators are planned, it is not too late to insist on safer and more promising alternative technologies. Citizens in those communities must assert themselves effectively and quickly if they are to be spared the dangerous predicament of Tooele residents.

For more information contact Chip Ward, P.O. Box 1005, Grantsville, UT 84029 (801/884-6291) or Chemical Weapons Working Group, P.O. Box 467, Berea, KY 40403.