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.
"With 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."