'World is watching' Army disposal plant

April 10, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

TOOELE, Utah -- Here in America's outback, where ravens patrol the sagebrush, the Army has erected a gleaming factory to dismember and destroy a hideous arsenal.

The Tooele Chemical Disposal Facility, the first full-scale plant built in the United States to incinerate chemical weapons, is set to begin operating in February.

A similar factory may be built at Aberdeen Proving Ground northeast of Baltimore, within 15 miles of nearly 300,000 people -- the largest population bordering any U.S. storage site for chemical weapons.

According to the Army's tentative schedule for Aberdeen, construction would start in 1998, and burning would begin in 2001.

Acceptance of incineration is one thing in the vastness of the Utah desert, where the roadside wildlife consists of antelope and golden eagles, and where the small nearby communities are largely dependent on a diminishing military payroll.

Stronger opposition has emerged around Aberdeen and other sites.

The Army calls Tooele a technological masterpiece: the "cleanest" operation of its kind on Earth, a smart bomb to begin the required task of global chemical disarmament.

Critics, though, call it a $1 billion experiment not to be repeated at places like Aberdeen. As with any new, complex technology, they say, parts can fail, people can err and the unexpected usually occurs.

"Nobody has ever done this on the scale that the United States is going to do it," says John Nunn, a Kent County attorney who co-chairs a citizen commission studying weapons disposal at Aberdeen.

"The Army can't say that nothing is going to happen."

Something did happen March 24 at the Army's test incinerator on Johnston Island, 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. A fraction of a pound of the nerve agent GB escaped from the stack. No one was hurt, but even a small accident casts doubt on the incineration program.

From afar, the Tooele plant looks like an ordinary chemical factory. Box-like buildings, black smokestacks and big storage tanks cover 27 acres. But shiny metal sliding boards emerging from the main building indicate the dangerous work that will occur inside. They provide escape routes for workers fleeing an accident involving the lethal chemical agents.

Inside, dozens of workers make adjustments to the miles of pipes and hydraulic lines, inspect "reverse assembly" machines in airtight chambers, and check multicolored computer screens and closed-circuit televisions that will monitor 15,000 working components.

Not far away is the waste the plant will burn: bulk containers of chemicals in a storage yard; rockets, artillery shells and other munitions filled with nerve and mustard agents in 208 earthen bunkers. In all the site houses more than 12,000 tons, the largest U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons.

The path to destruction is mostly automated.

For example, machines in "explosive-containment" rooms will disassemble the munitions and drain them of liquid agents. The liquids, metal containers, explosive innards and packing material to separate furnaces.

A powerful ventilation system will draw air from the less toxic to the more toxic areas, before sending it through a bank of charcoal filters.

Exhaust gases from the furnaces will be cooled, scrubbed of particles and acidic compounds, and sent through fabric filters.

'Congress is watching'

The Army's plan to build as many as seven other incinerators from Alabama to Oregon turns on the performance of the Utah plant.

"Congress is watching. The world is watching," says Veronica Kuras, an Army employee who must ensure the protection of the 400 workers at the Tooele plant and surrounding populations.

The Army says the recent accident at Johnston Island was the second time in four years of operation that lethal agent was released from the plant's smokestack. Workers apparently did not fully purge the agent from a line that leads to the liquid incinerator, which had been shut down for maintenance.

'Zero effect program'

The plant is not allowed to release more than 52 parts of GB per trillion parts of air averaged over an hour. Eighteen times that was detected in the stack initially, then the concentration decreased rapidly, the Army says.

Design changes would prevent a similar release at Tooele or other plants that may be built, the Army says.

Charles Baronian, civilian manager of the Army's chemical weapons disposal program, which is based at Aberdeen, says the effort is "basically a zero defect program. Any amount of agent in the stack is unacceptable."

"It just goes to show that they are far from getting all the bugs worked out," James Harmon, an engineer who is fighting a similar incinerator in Alabama, says of the recent accident.

"Had the Johnston Island leak been worse, and had there been fatalities among workers, this program is dead in the water," says Craig Williams, a Vietnam War veteran fighting the Army's incineration plan.

Mr. Williams is a leader of a diverse corps of people second-guessing the Army at every turn.

Key crossroads

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