If you hear the alarm, stop breathing

  • Mannequins sport protective gear and instructions for its use

    Kit Miller
  • Rick Holmes displays projectiles containing simulator agents

    Kit Miller
  • Kathie Durbin is fitted for a gas mask by Kent Williams

    Kit Miller

That doesn't mean take a deep breath and hold it, says the man at the front of the room. It means STOP BREATHING. Pull on your gas mask, clear it of air to get a tight seal, and breathe through it until further notice.

No one gets into the new Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Tooele Army Depot without a properly fitted Army-issue gas mask. Tucked into a pocket of the canvas bag that holds your mask are syringes containing antidotes to the nerve gases and blister agents stored at this desert repository. If you're exposed you hold the syringes, first the green, then the black, against your thigh. Then push.

It seems chilling and unnecessary. The bombs, rockets and steel tanks here that hold 42 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile - nearly 30 million pounds - are stored in earth-covered concrete igloos well away from the shiny new incinerator complex. They'll stay there for at least another year until the Army gets clearance to fire up its four incinerators and begin burning these deadliest of Cold War artifacts.

If all goes according to plan, the incinerators will run 24 hours a day for six years until all the nerve gas and mustard gas is burned up. The decontaminated metal, ash and salts will be trucked to hazardous-waste landfills.

Before we can see one of the high-tech burners, we are asked to sniff into three jars to prove we can detect which one holds banana oil. No problem. We sit for the fitting of our gas masks, joking as we take on the appearance of huge mutant insects. We enter cubicles where plastic hoods are lowered over our heads and we are put through a series of exercises to check whether the masks are functioning.

It's weird and it eats up time. But we journalists, given a chance to tour the $285 million plant on Oct. 10, during the annual Society of Environmental Journalists Conference, put up with the elaborate safety protocol to win a firsthand look at one of this nation's most controversial hazardous-waste facilities.

Recent headlines have cast doubt on the Army's assurances that it has developed a safe technology for burning chemical weapons now stored at eight sites around the country. In September, Steven Jones, head safety officer at the Tooele incinerator complex, was fired by EG&G Defense Materials Inc., the military contractor hired to operate the facility (HCN, 10/17/94).

Jones' transgression: He refused to sign a document stating that risks posed by more than 3,000 hazards associated with the design and operation of the incinerator were "acceptable," requiring no corrective action. Jones said that for him to sign such a statement would be against the law. After just a short time on the job, Jones had already compiled a long list of safety violations at Tooele.

In an interview, Jones said many problems were shortcuts with worker safety during sensitive tasks like the unloading of munitions after they are trucked from the igloos.

The incinerator itself was so poorly designed, he added, that a squad of 100 workers constantly repairs and replaces mechanical equipment that failed during startup, including pipes, flanges, valves and pumps. Two of the four incinerators don't work at all, Jones says.

The worst-case scenario? Without a major redesign, poison gases might not be completely burned and "they're going to have releases."

On Oct. 13, Jones filed a whistleblower's complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor challenging his abrupt termination after just two and a half months on the job. He said his supervisors at EG&G told him not to put anything negative about the plant in writing, advising him that his mission was to keep the Army's program manager for chemical demilitarization "happy."

Four separate investigations of Jones' allegations, including one by the House Armed Services Committee, are under way.

The Army wants a fast track

The Army has pushed hard to get the incinerator at Tooele up and running. It needs to begin construction on seven others, including Oregon and Colorado in the West, so it can meet a 2004 deadline set by Congress to dispose of all the nation's chemical weapons under a bilateral accord with the former Soviet Union.

But a Kansas-based citizen oversight organization, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, says there's no hurry. It charged recently that the Army exaggerated the risk of leaks or explosions where chemical weapons are stored, to help sell local communities and Congress on the need to proceed quickly.

The Army admitted with some embarrassment that it had confused days with weeks in a report to the National Research Council. The report predicted that rockets holding the deadly cargo might accidentally detonate within 17.7 years. The Army corrected its estimate to about 120 years.

When it comes to the design and operation of chemical weapons incinerators, the states wield considerable power. They share authority with the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing hazardous waste permits but have sole authority to set other air, water and solid-waste pollution standards.

Steven Jones believes the Army may run out of patience and ask President Clinton for a declaration of sovereign immunity. That would allow the Army to override state regulations.

In Oregon, "That's been talked about," says Sue Oliver of the state's Department of Environmental Quality. "The fact is, it is a federal facility on federal property." But she doesn't expect the Army to try to steamroll Oregon.

In Utah, the Army didn't have to. The state's Department of Environmental Quality issued the Army a final permit with "compliance conditions' that allowed construction of the incinerator to begin before final design standards were decided.

"In Utah a lot of things in the contract were left blank contingent on what the contractor wants to do," Oliver says. "That won't happen here. We've said: "You won't get your permit until all the details are resolved." "

She adds, "It's the Army that is responsible for the delay. They're slow to respond to deficiencies. They have one person trying to handle environmental permits for three states."

Among other information, Oregon wants a year of meteorological data to determine how prevailing winds would affect air emissions from the stacks. The Army's Umatilla Depot is close to the town of Hermiston in north-central Oregon.

Deadly stuff

How dangerous are the weapons that will be burned at Tooele? Though the press packets the Army prepared didn't include the information, the Army has said that a drop of the nerve agent VX on the skin can be lethal.

The stockpile at Tooele includes mustard gases, also known as "blister agents," which cause temporary blindness, lung inflammation, nausea and vomiting. Iraq used these World War I poisons against Iran in the 1980s. Classified as persistent in the environment, they evaporate slowly and can poison insidiously, without the victim's knowledge.

Nerve agents, the other category of chemical weapons stockpiled at Tooele, are volatile, rapid-acting organophosphate chemicals related to such pesticides as parathion. After being absorbed by the skin or lungs, they disrupt body functions and cause intense sweating, bronchial congestion, dimming of vision, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea and convulsions. Victims die within minutes due to respiratory failure.

At the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, a desert outpost east of Tooele, more than a half-million pounds of deadly nerve agents were released into the air of western Utah during nearly two decades of open-air testing.

Documents recently obtained by the Deseret News list 1,635 field trials or demonstrations with nerve agents VX, GA and GB at Dugway between 1951 and 1969. Although no human deaths have been linked to the trials, atmospheric testing came to an abrupt halt in 1969 after nerve gas killed 6,000 sheep in appropriately named Skull Valley. The Army settled with local ranchers, but on our tour an Army spokesman was careful to avoid admitting responsibility.

The biggest risk in destroying these chemicals involves disarming the bombs designed to deliver them. As one Army official told us, these weapons were engineered to be used, not dismantled.

The Army says the most dangerous munitions at Tooele are M-55 rockets. These rockets, fitted with a fuse in the nose, carry liquid nerve gas in the warhead and propellant in the rear. As the rockets have aged, their military guardians have discovered that the nerve gas GB reacts chemically with the aluminum fuse, creating an unstable compound. Of the 32,545 rockets stored at Tooele, 29,545 are filled with GB; the rest contain VX, which is less volatile though more deadly.

The trickiest part of the operation, at Tooele, Umatilla and other chemical-weapons sites where rockets are stored, will come as liquid nerve gas gets separated from the explosives. Robots will perform this operation in a sealed, thick-walled chamber.

In fact, after the complex starts operating, humans won't enter most areas the press trooped through, except to perform necessary maintenance in protective suits.

Is it safe?

The only acknowledged place where nerve agents have been burned is Johnston Island in the South Pacific. At an incinerator on this remote atoll, the Army has conducted four tests to determine how effectively incineration destroys the nerve and mustard agents and the munitions that contain them.

Those tests have turned up problems. Last March, operations at Johnston Island were suspended when air-monitoring systems detected release of a nerve agent due to an improper fuel-oil flush of the line carrying the agent.

The Army says changes in equipment, ventilation and reporting procedures are being incorporated into the design of the mainland incinerators as a result. Steven Jones denies it. "None of the lessons we learned at Johnston Island ever went to Tooele," he says.

How safe is this bomb-destruction factory? For now, we have to rely on the word of the Army's deputy project manager, John Cluff, a man with a reassuring voice and manner who serves on the Tooele city council and lives close by.

"We're very proud of this plant," Cluff says. "We think it's a very beneficial thing for the environment. The air coming out of the stacks will be cleaner than the air coming in."

With Cluff as our guide we peek through a tiny window into the white-hot fire of an incinerator. The natural gas-fired furnaces are built to contain an explosion if a burster detonates inside. Metal parts from rockets and other bombs will be heated to over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far, in its startup phase, the chemical waste incinerator has been burning antifreeze while the contractor looks for a chemical that better simulates the properties of nerve and mustard gases.

Once the plant is running, air will be sucked by a giant fan through an elaborate ventilation system from the least contaminated to the most contaminated areas, then filtered, scrubbed with a brine solution to neutralize acids, and filtered again before it goes up the stacks.

Everything - ash, salts, metals, filters and even the furnaces themselves, once the job is done - will be disposed of as hazardous waste. The nearest hazardous waste dump is 70 miles away.

Every step in the process will be monitored electronically from nine panels in an elaborate control room, where "event trackers" allow operators to trace precisely what would happen if any variable in the process changed.

Maintenance workers who enter the forbidden zone will wear heat-sealed space suits called Demilitarization Protection Ensembles and will undergo an elaborate decontamination procedure. Residue that is washed off will go into a sump, where it will be neutralized with an 18 percent solution of sodium hydroxide.

Is there an alternative to incineration and the potential for toxic air emissions? Army spokesman Mark Evans says neutralization with sodium hydroxide has never been proven effective with large quantities of nerve and mustard agents. In fact, he says, there's evidence that neutralization is reversible under some circumstances. If that's true, the United States could not use the process, because the international convention on chemical weapons requires irreversible destruction.

Nevertheless, the Army will spend $45 million to study neutralization over the next 18 months.

The nerve and blister agents stored at Tooele constitute by far the nation's largest chemical weapons repository. Sites near Hermiston, Ore., and Pine Bluff, Ark., are tied for second, with about 12 percent each. Smaller stockpiles reside in Colorado, Alabama, Maryland, Indiana and Kentucky.

A boon locally

Safety issues aside, the government's decision to burn these weapons offers the prospect of good-paying jobs in rural areas. Tooele County Commissioner Leland Hogan, who joined the tour, grew up in the mountain-rimmed desert county that has become the repository for some of the nation's least-desirable garbage. Hogan is a plain-spoken man whose love for his home ground comes across.

In Tooele County, which is 89 percent federally owned, there wouldn't be much of an economy without the military, the federal and private hazardous waste dumps and the nearby Kennecott Copper Mine, which is expanding. Unemployment is negligible and per capita income consistently ranks in the top three among Utah counties.

On the bus, Hogan, a lifelong resident of Tooele County, names every peak, mountain range, pass and valley, and points out the location of his ranch. In all seriousness, Hogan says that tourists haven't yet discovered Tooele County because it's so far off the beaten track. He believes it's just a matter of time.

The Tooele County Commission won some notoriety recently when it endorsed a study to explore transporting chemical weapons to Utah from other sites - if it could be done safely and if the laws were changed. Currently, language inserted in each year's Defense Department budget prohibits even studying the possibility.

Hogan believes the story was blown out of proportion. Still, he says, keeping the nerve gas coming would be good for the county.

"It would allow the incinerator to run longer and it would give longer employment to the (200) people who have been trained to operate it."

Commissioner Hogan may be sold on incineration but not Congress. The project has chalked up huge cost overruns and its completion at all eight sites is expected to cost $10 billion, a far cry from the $1.2 billion the Army originally estimated.

In 1993, lawmakers asked the Army to study alternative technologies that might be safer and less costly than incineration. The prestigious National Research Council identified several technologies, including neutralization and biodegradation, that held promise. But last April, in its response to that report, the Army recommended incineration proceed, citing the threat of leaks and accidental explosions.

The Russians, who have a roughly equivalent amount of chemical weapons to destroy, are not as committed to incineration.

"It's a very technical process and they are concerned about whether their populace is sufficiently trained" to run it, as John Cluff says.

As for safety inspector Jones, he has this advice for other states feeling pressure from the Army to welcome chemical incinerators.

"The absolute minimum thing that every citizen group needs to have is an independent safety agent in the plant to work side by side with the Army and the contractor. Let the communities decide how much risk they're willing to accept."

Kathie Durbin usually reports from Portland, Oregon.

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