Albion Monitor /News

U.S. to Burn Toxic Biochemical Arsenal

by Malcolm Howard

30,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons

(IPS) COLORADO SPRINGS -- The U.S. Army is expected to begin destroying its massive Cold War arsenal of chemical and biological weapons this spring in a sleepy desert town in western Utah called Tooele.

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Congress gave the Army 20 years to destroy all 30,000 tons of its deadly chemical arsenal, which is stored in bunkers at eight depots around the United States.

But because the military has chosen to build incinerators in which to burn the weapons, many residents who live near the proposed incinerators fear that in peacetime they may fall victim to arms never used in war.

"The incinerator being built is going to burn one of the most toxic substances found on earth, and it's going to burn on a massive scale, 24 hours a day," says Chip Ward, a Utah librarian who lives 10 miles down-wind from the Army's largest chemical weapons stockpile. "So I have real doubts that this is the best way to destroy these weapons and that the Army can do the job safely."

Concerns about massive release of dioxin near food-producing areas

Ward is one of dozens of community activists around the country who says the military is rushing to burn, despite a host of health and safety concerns that have not been addressed.

At nearly all the chemical weapons sites, in fact, the Army and other federal agencies are years behind in preparing mandated emergency plans for cases of accidental release of chemical agents.

But even if the planned plants operate without a hitch, activists worry about other byproducts of incineration, which they say could cause toxic build up in local water and soil supplies over the 20-year life of the facility.

Of particular concern are particles of incomplete combustion (PIC), which are new componds formed when chemicals are burned at extremely high temperatures.

The most infamous PIC is dioxin, a cancer-causing substance that can affect human and animal reproduction. Dioxin is particularly troublesome, because once it enters the food chain or the human body, it does not go away, research has found.

"So this is not a local problem," says Ward. "North of here, we have salt evaporation ponds. That salt is fed to cattle, which then produce milk and meat for the whole country. In Pueblo, Colorado, they're building a (chemical weapons incinerator) right up-wind from an area used to produce vegetables. In Alabama, it's poultry."

Though incineration opponents concede it is too late to stop the Army from burning chemicals in Tooele, Ward says it is not too late to examine alternatives for the nation's seven other stockpiles.

In short, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a consortium of local activists, wants the Army to investigate other methods which use chemical and biological processes to break down the agents into less toxic substances.

Army's poor public safety record shows the agency simply cannot be trusted

Proponents of incineration, however, say there is no time for further study. They cite reports by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences, which find fault with the Army's plan, but concede that the greatest dangers lie in delay.

In the early 1980s, they note, the Army revealed that hundreds of shell casings holding much of the military's vintage chemical weapons were deteriorating. At last count, more than 1,800 cartridges had sprung leaks.

The propellants and explosive charges attached to many of those shells, meanwhile, are also growing unstable, raising the spectre of "auto-ignition."

Such an explosion could be disastrous. One official worst-case scenario estimates casualties as high as 20,000 if agents such as anthrax or mustard gas were to escape in an accident or earthquake.

"If I were living in a community around one of those sites, I'd want these weapons dismantled in the quickest and safest way available," says Amy Smithson, a senior research associate for Washington's Stimson Center, which tracks the chemical weapons disarmament process.

To Smithson, incineration is the best available way. In a report released last year, she says environmentalists who oppose the incineration have an antiquated view of the technology.

"The air monitors on these incinerators are unlike the monitors on any other incinerator," says Smithson. "They are on 24 hours a day and checked every quarter of an hour to ensure that no (chemical or biological weapons) escape."

Before any gases are allowed up the stacks, she adds, special sensors sniff for left-over agents. If any remains, the material is burned again until it falls well below levels considered safe by federal rules. In the end, the Army contends, these incinerators will destroy 99.99 per cent of the chemical agents that enter the burning chambers. Special filters and scrubbers, meanwhile, will remove leftover substances such as PICs.

But incineration critics call such claims naive. No matter how good the incinerators look on paper, they say, the Army's poor public safety record shows the agency simply cannot be trusted.

As evidence, they point to several reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative wing of the U.S. Congress. The GAO concludes that financial and bureaucratic mismanagement have left chemical weapon emergency preparedness plans in disarray.

Even though $200 million had been spent in the eight years prior to 1994, communities surrounding chemical weapons depots were "not yet prepared to respond to a chemical emergency," the GAO wrote in one report.

Though these measures are required no matter what disposal technology is used, many facilities still lack even the most basic components of an emergency preparedness system: warning sirens, evacuation proceedures, gas masks, and agent antidotes.

"You have to wonder if we're expendable"

Safety concern escalated in Utah in 1994 when Steve Jones, a safety inspector at the Tooele incinerator, accused the army and its contractors of ignoring his complaints that safety measures were not being followed and that workers were nor properly trained.

Jones says he was fired by the contractor after raising his concerns, but the contractor cites incompatible management styles as the reason for dismissal. Either way, the charges led to several state and federal investigions. Some continue, while others resulted in changes at the Tooele plant.

Still, the allegations meet wide interpretation. Army proponents note that Jones raised his concerns before the plant was ready, when it is normal to still have bugs in the system.

Opponents, on the other hand, say Jones' allegations prove the need for 24-hour a day independent overseers who report directly to citizens' advisory committees.

"We're very concerned that there be some independent oversight," says Steve Erikson, a public interest lawyer based in Salt Lake City. "Right now, we have to rely upon information from the Army or from EG&G, the contractor building the facility."

Part of this distrust stems from history. Throughout the Cold War, the Army and other military agencies routinely exposed civilians to unsafe levels of radiation and toxins during open-air nuclear and chemical weapons tests. Though hundreds of people complained, became sick, or died, documents released in the last three years reveal that the military regularly stonewalled or lied about the events.

"Those people were expendable," says Ward. "You have to wonder if we're expendable too."

A similar story has been unfolding in Russia, where goverment officials must dispose of 40,000 tons of Soviet-made chemical weapons -- from mustard gas to sarin -- stockpiled at seven sites. There, resistance to incineration is even stronger, in part, due to the meltdown at Chernobyl, which left many Russians leery of sending chemical weapons up in smoke.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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