Plans to burn Cold War-era chemical weapons in northeastern Oregon have environmental groups up in arms.
Before burning the more than 3,000 tons of sarin
and mustard gas that have been stored at the Umatilla Chemical
Agent Disposal Facility since 1962, the Army must first test its
furnaces by burning "surrogate" chemicals. At the end of July, the
Army began burning perchloroethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent, and
trichlorobenzene, an industrial degreaser.
According to the Oregon Department of
Environmental Quality, a "mini-burn" in mid-August failed the
state's allowable emission rates for five heavy metals: antimony,
arsenic, chromium, lead and nickel. The Army insists the emissions
were safe and below Oregon's state requirements. "The furnace
efficiency was not as great as calculated, and we exceeded the
emission rates for those five metals," says Army spokeswoman Mary
Binder. "But that's part of why you test; to see if it works how
you predict it will."
But environmentalists have
sued, trying to force the state of Oregon to revoke the Army's
permit. They're advocating the use of alternatives to dispose of
chemical weapons, such as neutralization, which breaks the agent
into less-toxic substances with water.
incineration, there is no way to know about a release of hazardous
materials until it's already out into the ambient air," says Robert
Palzer, a retired chemistry professor who now works with the Sierra
Club. "(Umatilla's) sister facilities have all had problems and
been shut down, but Oregon is blind to this and is going full bore
ahead, instead of taking a more cautious approach."