Chemical arms inspector calls firing a reprisal

October 14, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

A top inspector fired last month from his job at a chemical weapons destruction plant in Utah -- a model for a similar incinerator planned for Aberdeen Proving Ground -- filed a complaint yesterday with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the he was dismissed solely for raising serious safety concerns.

The inspector, Steven W. Jones, claims he was fired in violation of several federal environmental laws whose provisions protect "whistle-blowers."

He is seeking reinstatement to his $70,000-a-year position with a private defense contractor operating the Tooele Army Depot plant near Salt Lake City or compensation for his firing. By law, the Labor Department must investigate the complaint within 30 days.

The contractor, EG&G Defense Materials Inc., denies that Mr. Jones was ordered to keep quiet. Company officials say he was tTC fired for being overly zealous and unwilling to understand the complex workings of the plant.

The plant is undergoing testing and will be the first to operate in the continental United States. It's similar to an incinerator planned for Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore, where the Army stores about 1,500 tons of mustard agent, which would be destroyed. Mustard agent is a potentially lethal substance that blisters the skin and damages the respiratory system.

The Utah plant, whose total cost is expected to be $1 billion, is scheduled to begin burning 12,000 tons of chemical-filled munitions and bulk poisons in September 1995.

The Army agency in charge of destroying the nation's obsolete chemical weapons stored at Tooele, Aberdeen and six other U.S. sites has its headquarters at the Harford County proving ground, a research and weapons testing installation.

The Labor Department complaint comes amid a half-dozen state and federal investigations prompted by Mr. Jones' allegations. Mr. Jones, who by all accounts is a competent safety inspector experienced in overseeing chemical and nuclear facilities, has called for the Utah incinerator to be shut down pending an independent safety review.

Mr. Jones alleges that the Army is not willing to address critical design flaws that he says could result in fatal exposures to employees at the Utah plant or releases of chemicals that could endanger surrounding populations.

Though none of the investigations has been completed, the Army contends that its own safety inspectors have not been able to confirm Mr. Jones' allegations.

In addition, officials at the House Armed Services Committee said yesterday that they had not been able to confirm that there are any gross safety problems at the plant. One official, who declined to be identified, stressed that the plant is in a normal shakedown during which safety problems could be fixed.

But an aide to Rep. Glen Browder, an Alabama Democrat who requested the committee's inquiry, said Mr. Jones' allegations have not been dismissed. "It's very much still an open issue," said the aide, Vickie Plunkett.

Mr. Browder's district includes a chemical weapons depot at Anniston, where the Army wants to build another incinerator.

Mr. Jones, 44, alleges that he was ordered by his employer to bar certain Army safety personnel from the plant, told never to put "anything negative about the plant in writing" and ordered to ignore potentially fatal safety violations.

The eight-page complaint was prepared with help from the privateGovernment Accountability Project in Washington, a .

nonprofit group dedicated to protecting whistle-blowers.

Mr. Jones, who was fired after less than three months on the job, alleges that EG&G and the Army -- faced with billions in cost overruns and the pressure to meet a congressional mandate to destroy the weapons by 2005 -- have abandoned normal safety procedures.

"There is no easy fix on this thing," Mr. Jones said yesterday, before announcing his Labor Department complaint at a news conference in Salt Lake City.

Citizens around the country fighting the Army's incineration plan fear that Mr. Jones' allegations might be glossed over by regulators and Congress, said Craig Williams of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group. The group is coordinating citizen opposition to the incinerators and urging the Army to pursue what they say are safer and possibly cheaper disposal methods.

But Army officials say they are taking Mr. Jones' allegations seriously.

Said Suzanne M. Fournier, a spokeswoman for the Army Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency: "The plant will not operate until they are addressed."

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