Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Burning Disposal Controversy

The Army is relying on incineration to get rid of nine stockpiles of aging chemical weapons

Back when American doughboys were slogging through European trenches in the great war - facing the terror of mustard gas - United States policymakers decided to begin producing chemical weapons. If conflict ever again escalated to the use of poison, they reasoned, the US should be prepared to respond.

For the next 50 years (until 1968) the US built millions of bombs, rockets, landmines, spray tanks, and other ordnance designed to spew out deadly chemicals. But the munitions sat in bunkers through major military conflicts - no country wanted to be the first to initiate such horror when retaliation was assured. Then, a few years ago, nations began negotiating an end to chemical weapons stockpiling.

About these ads

Now, the problem is how to get rid of such munitions - many of which are eroding - without risking the lives of people who live nearby. The Army wants to burn the chemicals, which it asserts can be safely done in high-tech incinerators.

"The technology has a proven track record," says Ronald Lamoreaux, senior civilian at the US Army's Umatilla Depot in northeast Oregon, which sits on a flat plain just south of the Columbia River.

But some scientists, government officials, environmentalists, and area residents warn that there's no guarantee poisons won't escape into the atmosphere. The gulf between the two sides underscores the complexity and sensitivity the government faces in disposing of unusual elements of the country's war machine of the past.

"We need a better look at the risks associated with it and also at the alternatives" to incineration, says Karyn Jones, who lives in Hermiston, five miles downwind from the Umatilla depot. She chairs a citizens' advisory commission appointed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The Umatilla depot is one of eight such sites around the country and a ninth is at Johnston Island, an atoll 700 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Over the years since Congress ordered disposal of all US chemical weapons in 1986, the price tag has escalated to more than $12 billion. The deadline for destruction also has been pushed back 10 years.

In January, Army officials declassified data on the US chemical stockpile, revealing that more than 30,000 tons of chemical agents remain to be disposed of. These include HD blistering agent (similar to mustard gas) and two types of nerve gas - GB and VX. GB also is known as Sarin, the substance a Japanese cult used in a deadly attack on the Tokyo subway system last year.

About these ads

The chemical arsenal here at Umatilla is the third-largest in the country. It totals more than 7 million pounds of agents contained in 220,599 items. These include 155-millimeter and 8-inch projectiles, M-55 rockets, 500-pound and 750-pound bombs, landmines, spray tanks, and 170-gallon storage tanks.

Designed to store conventional explosive ordnance, the Umatilla depot was built just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Chemical weapons began arriving here in 1962. Today, 1,001 bunkers are spread across the depot's nearly 20,000 acres. These "igloos" - 80 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 22 feet high - are built of steel-reinforced concrete and covered with dirt. The bunkers inside the highly secure K-Block area hold the chemical weapons waiting for disposal.

"Our sole purpose in life now is to make sure they aren't leaking," says Donna Fuzi, depot spokeswoman. But despite the careful handling and sophisticated warning systems, there have been 104 "leakers" since 1984 - most M-55 rockets.

"The rockets have aluminum shells, and the GB [nerve agent] is corrosive so it's eating its way through," says Ms. Fuzi, who started work here as an enlisted security guard. In addition to the leaks, states an Army document, "there is some concern that the stabilizer in these weapons may degrade and cause a rocket to fire."

In a report released Friday, the Pentagon says rockets deemed unsafe will be disassembled; the chemical warheads will be separated from the rocket propellant section - a slow process the Army so far has considered to be unnecessary.

The depot at Umatilla, named for a local Indian tribe, looks placid enough. A constant wind pushes tumbleweed across empty roads. A herd of 200 antelope mostly ignores the 150 employees. But because of groundwater contamination from chemical and conventional weapons, the Umatilla depot in 1987 was placed on the "National Priorities List" under the federal toxic cleanup program known as Superfund.

The Army's plan is to build five incinerators here, start burning the chemicals in 2000, and shut down (under the Base Realignment and Closure Act) by 2004.

Officials stress that such disposal will meet all state and federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act. Incinerators must achieve a "destruction and removal efficiency" of 99.9999 percent, meaning that no more than 0.0001 percent of the chemical agents can leave the incinerator stack. The National Center for Environmental Health, a federal agency under the US Department of Health and Human Services, says this is "well below levels considered safe for the community."

In addition, according to the Army, the incinerators are designed to shut down automatically if chemical agents are detected in the ventilation and filter system.

Local elected officials, including city mayors in the area, have not objected to the incineration plan. They are more concerned with the potential dangers of continued storage.

But US Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon, the area's congressman, has called for a one-year moratorium on the granting of state permits necessary to proceed.

"The inherent danger of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and even more lethal nerve gas, require much more scrutiny than the usual environment and safety precautions," Mr. DeFazio wrote in a recent letter to Governor Kitzhaber. "Despite the Army's determination to incinerate these extremely dangerous weapons, the Pentagon has never performed an adequate and systematic analysis of the comparative risks, benefits and costs of incineration compared to the various alternative disposal methods."

A number of area residents has joined the appeal for a moratorium. Thirty miles downwind from the Army depot is the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Tribal leaders are concerned about the potential impact of chemical incineration - particularly an accidental release - on crops, fisheries, and the Wildhorse gambling resort, which opened last year.

"We have a lot at stake here," says Armand Minthorn, a member of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We want the best thing for the tribal people and the resources they live by."

Similar concerns have surfaced in other parts of the country. In early April, the Chemical Weapons Working Group (a coalition of activists in the US, Pacific islands, and Russia), the Sierra Club, and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation filed a "notice of intent to sue" in federal court to block startup of the Army's chemical weapons incinerator at Tooele, Utah.

Chemical incineration there, the groups claim, would violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Clean Water Act.

The Tooele Army Depot houses 42 percent of the US chemical weapons stockpile. Its incinerators are complete, and the Army wants to start disposal there this summer. Officials point to a 1994 General Accounting Office report that states: "The Army's disposal program fully complies with or surpasses Environmental Protection Agency's requirements in environmental and public health protection."

Not all experts agree, however.

In a risk-assessment study released last month, nuclear scientist and University of North Carolina professor Douglas Crawford-Brown concluded that incineration is much more dangerous than other methods of disposal. Alternative methods include draining the weapons of their chemical agents, then neutralizing the agent through hydrolysis and oxidation and storing it in brine. (Critics say this method still leaves toxic chemicals to be disposed of.)

The Army and the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, are studying three alternative technologies: electrochemical oxidation, high temperature gas-phase reduction, and molten metal. But with erosion a continuing problem, the plan is still to proceed with incineration as quickly as possible.

Congressman DeFazio notes that there have been accidental releases of toxic chemicals during incineration at the Johnston Island facility as well as the explosion of a chemical rocket there. The EPA recently fined the Army $50,000 for leaking a chemical agent at Johnston Island.

Such occurrences may be seen as less of a threat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where more than 2 million pounds of chemical agent have been successfully destroyed. But they are troubling nevertheless.

Steven Jones, former chief safety and security officer at the Tooele, Utah, facility, says, "The program should be stopped immediately."

Fired in 1994 by the main contractor at Tooele, Mr. Jones has filed a whistleblower complaint now being heard by an administrative law judge in Salt Lake City. Company officials insist that Jones was dismissed after less than three months on the job because of differences over management style.

Built during the heat of war and the fear of cold war, chemical weapons were a hasty response to a threat perceived as massive and frightening. In retrospect, all agree, it might have been better to figure out what to do if they never had to be used. "Every piece of conventional ammunition has cradle-to-grave instructions," says Mr. Lamoreaux, the senior civilian at Umatilla. "It's a little strange that chemical weapons didn't have that."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.