Bombs go up in smoke in a rural Utah county


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 depot.

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 half-capacity.

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 billion.

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 in Utah.

"Everyone is watching this facility," says Army spokeswoman Marilyn Tischbin.

"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.

Burning 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."

Starts and stalls

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 self-detonate.

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 go-ahead.

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 disposal.

"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 estimate.

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.

County 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 heard.

Oregon and Colorado, also slated for incinerators, have moved more slowly. Neither state has issued the Army a permit to begin construction.

Oregon, the 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.

"I'm 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 levels.

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.

Opponents of 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."

Vincent, 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 Pueblo.

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 committee meetings.

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 ones.

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 Act.

A trial run

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 Montana.

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