Weapons incinerators a hazard, expert warns

September 23, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

A safety expert who says he was fired for speaking out warned that "catastrophic" accidents could occur in incinerators designed to destroy the nation's obsolete chemical weapons, including those stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground northeast of Baltimore.

The allegations of Steven W. Jones, dismissed last week as a top safety officer at the nation's first full-scale chemical weapons incinerator in Utah, have heightened concerns about the $10 billion Army program to destroy poison arms stockpiles at eight U.S. sites.

The Utah incinerator is a model for others around the country -- and the focus of an intense debate about the safety of burning the lethal nerve and blister agents.

Mr. Jones, an experienced safety officer for the military, says environmental and worker protections at the Utah plant are so deficient that operations should be halted until an independent review is performed.

"It's an absolute fraud on the public. Safety has been abandoned," Mr. Jones, 44, said yesterday from his home near Provo.

The contractor who employed him for the past three months, EG&G Defense Materials Inc., and the Army say that Mr. Jones is exaggerating safety concerns that they already are addressing.

"We are not questioning his credentials," said Marilyn Tischbin, a spokeswoman for the Army's Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency. "We are not necessarily in agreement with his assessment of the severity of the problems."

The agency has its headquarters at the proving ground's Edgewood area, formerly a manufacturing center for chemical weapons that now directs research into defending against poison arms.

Henry Silvestri, general manager and president of EG&G, said: "This guy is grossly, grossly misrepresenting the facts," adding that Mr. Jones was fired because of "differences in management style and philosophy." He would not elaborate on those differences.

"Will we ever start this plant if there are any issues of safety? Absolutely not," Mr. Silvestri said.

Mr. Jones says he was fired because he refused to accept a host of safety deficiencies covering the plant's design and hardware, handling of the toxic chemicals, training of the work force and the ability to respond to accidents.

Mr. Jones says a reluctance to correct these flaws could result in a "catastrophic" release of deadly chemicals into the air around the plant outside Salt Lake City or the poisoning of workers at the facility.

The future of the Army's incineration program hinges on the performance of the $1 billion Utah plant, which is scheduled to start burning 12,000 tons of chemical-filled weapons and bulk agents in about a year. It is now undergoing testing, which eventually will include trial burning with substances that will simulate chemical agents.

The Army has proposed building a $500 million incinerator to burn 1,500 tons of mustard agent stored at Aberdeen, beginning in 2001. People living near the proving ground and other chemical weapons depots are pressuring the Army to pursue alternatives to burning.

Congress has told the Army to destroy the entire 30,000-ton chemical stockpile by 2005, which also is the deadline in an international treaty yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In response to Mr. Jones' allegations, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a citizens group fighting incineration of the deadly agents, is demanding a halt to operations at the Utah plant and a moratorium on the construction of incinerators.

"This guy has an impeccable record," Craig Williams, the group's director, said of Mr. Jones. "He wouldn't go along with the program."

Mr. Williams and others, including Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, have been pressuring the Army to abandon its incineration program -- which is 10 years behind schedule and costing billions more than initial estimates -- in favor of alternative disposal methods. The Army recently committed to spending nearly $50 million to study chemical and biological detoxification processes it says might be used at Aberdeen, which is surrounded by 300,000 people, and at a depot in Indiana.

An aide to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said yesterday that Mr. Jones has a solid reputation as a safety officer experienced in inspecting chemical and nuclear facilities.

"We are going to stand behind this guy," said Robert Lockwood, who advises Mr. Hatch on military affairs. "It would be irrational to ignore this guy's concerns."

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