- TOOELE, Utah -- In the still air of this desert valley, home to the
world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons, a collective sigh of relief
is almost audible.
- In nearly two years of operation, a prototype
chemical weapons incinerator has destroyed 1,500 tons of sarin gas, one
quarter of the depot's stock. Zeroing in on faulty lots of weapons, disposal
workers also cut the number of "leakers" last year to 27, two-thirds
the annual average number of bombs found to be leaking chemical gas here
in the 1990s.
- The results -- and the local revenue
-- have prompted at least one local official to suggest transporting other
chemical weapon stocks to here for destruction, although the idea is widely
- Environmentalists had bitterly fought
the Tooele incinerator, once predicting that workers would come out in
"body bags." But the only recorded injuries have been to two
workers who slipped on icy walkways outside the incinerator, 17 miles south
of Tooele (pronounced too-ELL-ah), a booming bedroom community of about
15,000 people in north-central Utah.
- "My constituents are pleased we
are finally getting rid of this stuff," said the local official, Gary
Griffith of the Tooele County Commission, which has long supported the
incineration of the weapons here.
- The massive incinerator is the world's
most concrete advance in weapons reduction since the Chemical Weapons Convention
went into effect one year ago. This treaty rules out the methods of disposal
that were popular through the 1970s: open burning on windless days, burial
by bulldozers and dumping in the ocean.
- Tooele's incinerator, which resembles
a steamship beached in the desert 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City,
is the fruit of 20 years and several billion federal dollars in research
- "This is the Rolls-Royce of incinerators,"
said Amy Smithson, who has reviewed the plant's operation and who is a
senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a research organization
in Washington that specializes in military issues. "The Army has put
more safeguards on this incinerator than exist on any incinerator in the
- Russian technicians have toured the Tooele
incinerator as part of efforts to destroy all of their country's stocks.
But Russia, whose 40,000 tons of chemical weapons is the world's largest
stockpile, is not expected to meet the treaty's 2007 deadline, because
its government lacks sufficient money.
- In the 1980s, the U.S. military withdrew
all its chemical weapons stocks from Europe and shipped them to Johnston
Atoll, in the Pacific. An incinerator started operating there in 1993 and
has burned about 1,500 tons, or almost 75 percent of the stocks.
- Two more chemical weapons incinerators
are under construction at storage sites in the United States: one at Anniston,
Ala., the other at Hermiston, Ore. A construction contract is to be awarded
soon for an incinerator at Pine Bluff, Ark. And government researchers
are testing chemical neutralization technologies for possible use at the
other stockpile bases: Aberdeen, Md; Richmond, Ky; Newport, Ind., and Pueblo,
- But environmentalists continue to try
to block all incinerators, including Tooele's, saying they are unsafe.
- "Our lawsuits are meant to derail
the technology, not the to derail the U.S. mission," said Craig Williams
of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a citizens' coalition based Kentucky.
"These facilities, as they are designed and operating, do not protect
- Utah has reason to be skeptical about
the military's safety claims. In Nevada in the 1950s, the military exploded
nuclear bombs in open-air tests when the wind was blowing away from Las
Vegas and toward Utah. In 1968, about 6,400 sheep were accidentally killed
when the wind changed during an open air test of a nerve agent at the Dugway
Proving Grounds, an Army installation about 40 miles west of here.
- But a series of scientific reviews seem
to be easing public fears about Tooele's incinerator, the first to operate
in the continental United States. In two telephone surveys conducted last
year by Dan Jones and Associates, a polling group, the number of respondents
in the Salt Lake area who considered the incinerator risk to be "significant"
or "very significant" dropped sharply, to 28 percent in September,
from 44 percent the previous March.
- Last year, a panel of 16 independent
scientists reviewed operations at the Tooele plant at the request of the
National Research Council. In its report, the panel upheld Army calculations
that said burning Tooele's munitions would be far less dangerous than storing
- Then in September, a separate study rated
"prospects for continued safe operation" of the incinerator as
"very good." This report was prepared by independent consultants
contracted by the Utah Citizens Advisory Commission, a diverse group appointed
by the governor, Michael Leavitt, a Republican.
- The report was commissioned after a series
of plant shutdowns and accusations of lax safety practices by former managers
at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, as the plant is officially
- "While there have been highly publicized
problems and occurrences at T.O.C.D.F.," the report said, "these
have been very minor with respect to both public and worker safety. None
of these have resulted in release of measurable amounts of agent into the
atmosphere and no appreciable agent exposures have occurred to workers,
visitors, or the public."
- In a highly computerized plant dependent
on robots, shutdowns are to be expected at the outset, the report said.
But the reported added, "The operating staff are gaining experience
and operations are becoming more routine."
- Oversight is so heavy, the report said,
that some managers spend up to 50 percent of their time responding to inspections
and audits. In a 10-month period, there were 28 outside evaluations of
the incinerator. Such favorable safety reports have prompted The Salt Lake
Tribune, Utah's largest newspaper, to publish a series of editorials with
such headlines as "Burn chemical weapons" and "Incinerating
- Next June, a permit to double the plant's
rate for incineration is expected to be issued by Utah's governing agency,
the Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board.
- "If we can go full rate at midyear,
we can really take off in terms of quantities of agents disposed,"
said Timothy Thomas, manager of the incineration program here.
- So far, the incinerator has destroyed
almost 14,000 rockets, bombs and bulk containers in the process of burning
the sarin gas. With the perception of a smooth operation, some people here
have been emboldened to challenge inhibitions on transporting chemical
- Government plans to duplicate Tooele's
$650 million disposal plant at the seven other sites around the nation
represent a colossal waste of taxpayers' money, argues Griffith, the county
- "None of this stuff was hatched
here to begin with," he said of the chemical weapons that were shipped
here by rail and road, largely from a Denver production plant, in the 1950s
- Arguing that stocks in Colorado, Arkansas
and Oregon should be shipped to Tooele for incineration, Griffith said
said duplication meant that "we are spending billions for nothing."
- "We let mass hysteria, lack of common
sense, steal money out of our pockets," he added.
- But on a broader state and national level,
his idea does not have much support. And locally, some environmentalists
say they suspect, county officials are falling in love with their plant
for economic reasons. Under the conditions for incineration, the county
receives $970 from the Army for every ton of chemical agent incinerated.
These royalties, about $1.5 million so far, are helping to finance the
construction of sports complex on the edge of town.
- Before the incineration began at the
Tooele incinerator on Aug. 22, 1996, the Desert Chemical Depot, as the
Army installation is officially known, held 13,600 tons of chemical weapons,
or 43 percent of the nation's total arsenal of 31,500 tons.
- On the issue of transporting weapon stocks
for destruction, advocates of local disposal contend that the days of shuttling
chemical weapons around the nation are over. Public opinion and the unstable
nature of 50-year-old chemical weapons rule out transportation, they say.
- "The politics of transportation
are impossible," said Ross Vincent, a member of a parallel panel of
advisers in Colorado, the Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission.
"Here in Pueblo, we would be lucky to get this stuff across the county
line, much less across the state line."
- Vincent, a Sierra Club official, also
argued that transportation to Utah could prove as expensive as destruction
- "You would have to build new fleets
to move this stuff," he said. "You would have to buy off every
county between here and the destination site."