Chemical arms disposal plant reopens Gas leak raises fresh fears as program is set to expand

September 01, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TOOELE, Utah -- When the big $650 million factory finally started crunching up chemical weapons in the Utah desert a week ago, the Army boasted that it was using some of the most advanced technology in the world to destroy some of the most lethal weapons ever created.

But the Army had no sooner started turning a half-century-old stockpile of nerve gas and blistering agents into benign vapor than the nation's first chemical weapons disposal plant was shut down.

A small amount of sarin nerve gas, the agent used by terrorists in a Tokyo subway attack last year, was found where it should not have been -- in the end-of-the-line filters that clean factory air before releasing it into the desert skies southwest of Salt Lake City.

The technology may be advanced, but what appears to have bedeviled the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility was probably something as simple as leaky gaskets, plant managers said.

After being closed five days, the plant started up again Friday afternoon. Plant officials said the gas leak had posed no health risk to workers or the public.

But as the Army prepares to expand its long-delayed, $12 billion program to destroy U.S. chemical weapons through incineration to seven other communities around the nation, the problem here has raised some fresh fears.

All eyes are on the plant at Tooele (pronounced too-ELL-ah), not only because it is the first and most advanced of the chemical-weapons-destroying factories that will be in operation through 2004 or longer, but because this is the plant where the glitches were supposed to be worked out before it started up. The plant is operated by a contractor, EG and G Defense Materials Inc., under the Army's oversight.

In destroying chemical weapons, there is little room for error. A single drop of a nerve agent like sarin can kill a person. A major release into the air would kill one in 10 people within a 40-mile radius, according to some projections.

The Army has more than 30,000 tons of chemical agents stored in bunkers around the country. Almost half, about 44 percent of the entire stockpile, is here in World War II-era tombs.

In court hearings a month ago, where opponents tried to stop the plant from opening, top Army officials asserted that all the mechanical problems associated with a factory start-up had "already been discovered and corrected."

For critics of the plant and the entire plan to burn chemical weapons, the small release at Tooele has prompted a new round of told-you-so warnings.

But factory managers say that their numerous safety backup systems worked and that the chemical had been contained.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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