On the morning of Aug. 22, giant furnaces sparked into life in Tooele County, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Inside the infernos, M-55 nerve gas rockets
were reduced to shrapnel and smoke. But three days later, the
destruction of chemical weapons abruptly halted after traces of
nerve gas were detected in a sealed part of the Army
It took Army engineers five days to
restart the Tooele (pronounced too-ella) Chemical Agent Disposal
Facility. But that was a minor delay. After nearly two decades of
preparation and false starts, the Army's plan to destroy its cache
of chemical weapons was up and running at
The $250 million Tooele facility,
the first of its kind in the continental United States, has been
touted as the "Rolls Royce of incinerators." Over the next seven
years, it is slated to burn 30 million pounds of nerve agents and
mustard gas at a cost of more than $1
Tooele is just the beginning. The Army
plans to build incinerators in seven other states, including Oregon
and Colorado. Billions of dollars and countless careers have been
invested in the program, which hinges on the success of the project
"Everyone is watching this facility,"
says Army spokeswoman Marilyn
"Everyone" includes a steadfast
coalition of opponents. They claim the Army has used half-truths to
foist a flawed incineration program on Utah. The plant is a lemon,
they say, that will run roughshod over environmental laws and
release deadly chemicals into Utah's air.
chemical weapons is a deadly experiment, says Chip Ward, a
long-time critic from nearby Grantsville (HCN, 10/3/94), and "we're
the guinea pigs."
Bombs and rockets containing lethal nerve
agents and mustard gases have been aging in concrete bunkers in
eight states, awaiting disposal since Congress ordered them
destroyed in the early 1980s (HCN, 10/31/94). Early on, the Army
chose incineration as the best way to dispose of the weapons, some
of which have sprung leaks and threaten to
Anxious to revive a military
economy in Tooele County, and to be rid of tons of the weapons
stockpiled there, Utah has been happy to provide a fast track. The
state issued a construction permit in 1989, while the Army was
still trouble-shooting at a prototype facility on an island in the
Pacific. The Tooele project was plagued with setbacks and delays,
but last June, the state gave a final
Start-up was postponed once again,
however, by a lawsuit from the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the
Sierra Club and the Vietnam Veterans of America. They say
incineration is far more dangerous than first anticipated, and the
Army has failed to consider safer methods of
"The program is 12 years behind
schedule and 700 percent over budget because it doesn't work," said
Chemical Weapons Working Group spokesman Craig Williams. "It
flat-out is a failure."
"The danger of passing
live nerve agent downwind is that it gets into the food chain,"
says Ward. "This is Mormon country. We grow our own vegetables and
fruit. There are three meat-packing plants in the county (and)
people eat their own beef."
The Army and the
state have admitted that their estimates of the risks of
incineration are flawed and out-dated. In a preliminary hearing in
Federal District Court in July, state officials acknowledged that
neither subsistence farmers nor breast-feeding infants were fully
considered in the risk studies. Gary Boyd, the Army's chief risk
analyst, said accidental releases could kill people as far as 30
miles from the plant, rather than an original two-and-a-half-mile
Still, the Army insists that the
incinerator is safe. The Army's Tischbin says experts took "a very
conservative, site-specific approach to measuring effects of
emissions." The facility is equipped with redundant safeguards and
has been tested extensively, she adds.
Commissioner Lois McArthur, a lifelong Tooele resident, says, "It's
not a real scary thing for us." Her husband is a driver at the
facility, in charge of transporting weapons from storage bunkers to
the plant. "The sooner we can incinerate it and take care of it the
better," she says.
Federal District Court Judge
Tena Campbell shared McArthur's sentiments. She denied a
preliminary injunction that would have halted burning until the
lawsuit from Chemical Weapons Working Group and its allies is
Oregon and Colorado, also slated for
incinerators, have moved more slowly. Neither state has issued the
Army a permit to begin construction.
next in line for burning weapons, has been cautious. Since 1986,
when the Army applied for a permit to build an incinerator in
Umatilla County in northeast Oregon, it has been jumping through
hoops to get the state Department of Environmental Quality to
approve its plans.
But the permitting process has
been driven by deadlines rather than public safety, according to
Karyn Jones, an Umatilla County resident and chair of a citizens'
advisory commission on chemical weapons.
tired of people coming here who don't live here and telling us it's
safe," says Jones. She says that dioxin levels are already
extremely high in Umatilla County, and emissions from the
incinerator could push them to dangerous
Donald Sampson, chairman of the
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, appealed to Gov. John
Kitzhaber early this year to stop the incinerator until the Army
considered other methods of disposal and completed a monitoring
system and emergency response plan.
"We want to
avoid becoming a "Three Mile Island tribe," " said tribal spokesman
Armand Minthorn. He worries that an accident would taint wheat,
peas, potatoes and watermelons grown on the reservation, just 30
miles from the proposed plant, and frighten people away from the
tribe's gaming resort.
The governor extended the
public comment period on the permits by five months, until Nov. 15.
The extension should give the state time to consider the options,
says Henry Lorenzen, chairman of the governor-appointed volunteer
Environmental Quality Commission.
plans to build an incinerator near Pueblo, Colo., are hoping to cut
the Army off with a safer alternative. "Incinerators are highly
cantankerous critters," says Ross Vincent, a chemical engineer from
Pueblo. "We need to work toward an approach to destroying these
weapons that we can all live with."
chairman of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team,
says the Army should invest in technologies that will be useful to
private companies, rather than wasting time and money on
incineration: "It is unconscionable for the military to be
investing in dead-end technologies that nobody else wants."
Pueblo hosted a seminar early this year to
explore alternative technologies. This fall, town officials say
they'll invite experts to make alternative proposals for
Coloradans have turned to Congress for
help. A bill introduced in the Senate by Kentucky Republican Mitch
McConnell would withhold funding for the Colorado facility until a
$40 million alternative technology study is completed. A similar
bill passed both houses this July, but died in closed-door
Another bill, this one by
Colorado Sen. Hank Brown, R, would authorize the Army to study the
possibility of "neutralizing" chemical weapons at the seven
nationwide sites and then shipping them to one, unspecified
incinerator. Brown says the study might find that using a
centralized incinerator is cheaper than building seven separate
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, R, calls the bill a
not-too-subtle attempt to saddle Tooele with all of the nation's
chemical munitions. He has vowed to fight the bill, which is part
of the 1997 Defense Authorization
At Tooele, the Army expects to proceed at
full throttle next summer. But "the game ain't over," warns
Williams, who thinks the results of the test-fire may provide
evidence against incineration. And Chip Ward hopes that the lawsuit
has turned enough attention on Tooele to keep incinerators out of
other states: "We've raised awareness to the point where if they
make mistakes, the life of incineration is in question."
For more information, call the Chemical Weapons
Working Group in Kentucky at 606/986-7565 or the Army's public
affairs office in Tooele, Utah, at 801/833-4575. To comment on
Oregon permits, write or call Debbie Jacky, Department of
Environmental Quality, 2146 NE 4th St., Suite 104, Bend, OR 97701
(541/388-6146, ext. 250).
The writer, who just
completed an internship at High Country News, is now a graduate
student at the University of