House Panel Probes Nerve Gas Leak at Weapons Incinerator

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2000 (ENS) - The accidental release of a small amount of nerve gas from a chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele, Utah in May does not indicate an overall problem with the U.S. Army's program to destroy thousands of tons of chemical weapons, Army officials and Defense Department contractors told a House panel today.

But other officials and observers expressed grave concerns over the Utah incident, as well as the operational designs and procedural protocols of the Army's $15 billion program to eliminate the nation's cache of chemical weapons.

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Daily operations at the storage igloos at Tooele include an inspection of the munitions for vapor or liquid leaks. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
The chemical weapons stockpile is located at eight sites across the continental Unites States and on the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

The Army plans to complete destruction of America's chemical weapons by 2007. This schedule complies with the international treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention which calls for the destruction of chemical weapons from the stockpiles of all nations.

"The events surrounding the Tooele leak have not been adequately explained," said James Eli Henderson, a county commissioner who lives close to another Army chemical weapons incinerator currently being built near Anniston, Alabama. "It is very clear to me that there are many questions that the Army has not been able to answer, or chooses not to answer."

Army officials were quick to rebut that charge, telling members of the House Subcommittee on Military Procurement that its Tooele facility - as well as its entire chemical weapons demilitarization program - is on solid ground.

"We view the incident that occurred at our Tooele facility as an anomaly - one that emerged from the unusual combination of challenges faced by the operations team on duty that evening," said James Bacon, manager of the Army's chemical weapons demilitarization program.

Tooele

The Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility operates 24 hours a day staffed by 600 workers. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
"The bottom line is that the incident was not caused by an intentional act, not was it related to any inherent problem in incineration technology, which continues to be the safest, most effective and proven method for destroying the chemical stockpile," Bacon told the subcommittee.

Between 18 and 36 milligrams of deadly sarin nerve gas escaped up the main smokestack at the Tooele facility on May 8, after a series of mechanical malfunctions and human errors occurred during the decommissioning of a batch of M56 rocket warheads.

The Centers for Disease Control concluded that the release posed no threat to human health or the environment.

Army officials maintain that the design and procedural errors that led to the accidental release have been rectified.

But those assurances were not good enough for Congressman Bob Riley, an Alabama Republican who is very concerned about the incinerator slated to go on line in his district in 2002.

Riley reserved some of his most pointed comments for Michael Rowe of EG&G Defense Materials, Inc., the private contractor that was hired by the Army to operate both the Tooele and Anniston facilities.

"We've spent over $800 million building a plant that we were told had so many redundant safety features that this could not happen," Riley said of the Tooele mishap. "If this is an example of the redundancy that I'm told was in place, I am highly skeptical that you won't have another [chemical release] next week.

"I think you have a design flaw," Riley told Rowe.

Riley

Congressman Bob Riley, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, talks with veterans in his Alabama district. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Riley called for a more thorough study of the chemical weapons destruction program, declaring that the present methods are "absolutely wrong" for the communities where the incinerators are located.

"There is absolutely no room for mistakes when you're disposing of chemical weapons," Riley said.

But other officials with a stake in the chemical weapons demilitarization program were quick to afford the Army and EG&G more latitude. Congressman James Hansen, a Utah Republican, said he was confident that the demilitarization program was being carried out safely and effectively.

"This [Tooele] incident is not a problem with incineration as a technology, it's a mechanical problem," Hansen said. "It does not call into question the fact that prompt destruction of the stockpile through incineration is the best way to ensure maximum protection to the community, workers and the environment."

According to Hansen, it is far more dangerous to let the cache of chemical weapons sit in bunkers as opposed to destroying them as quickly as possible. The longer the weapons sit in storage, Hansen noted, the higher the likelihood becomes that they will leak or explode.

Hansen acknowledged that there may have been design and procedural problems at the Tooele facility, but he said they are not significant enough to justify a long term shutdown of the plant.

"So far no one has been killed, to my knowledge," Hansen said. "I don't know of anyone who's had any problem out there."

Hansen's point was largely echoed by Kari Sagers, emergency management director for Tooele County, Utah.

Sagers also conceded that there were design and procedural problems with the Tooele facility. For example, EG&G and Army officials failed to notify Tooele County authorities in a timely manner when the May 8 discharge was first discovered, Sagers said.

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Emergency red telephones are a crucial component of the control room at Tooele. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
But according to Sagers, it would be a mistake to suspend operations at the plant for that reason. Moreover, Sagers noted, the volume of nerve agent released during the May 8 incident was small in comparison to what leaks out of ordinance stored at the plant on a routine basis.

"Leaking weapons have emitted literally millions of times more chemical agent into the atmosphere than the incident we are discussing today," Sagers told the members of the House panel. "With each passing day, these obsolete weapons continue to leak chemical agent into the environment. We strongly support the Army and EG&G in their respective missions to destroy these aging and obsolete weapons."

In fact, since the May 8 incident that was the focus of today's hearing, small leaks of chemical agents inside storage and processing areas at Tooele were reported on September 14, August 14, July 11, July 3, June 26, June 22 and June 12.

The Tooele facility is designed to dispose of some 13,616 tons of chemical agents, or approximately 44.5 percent of the nation's original stockpile of chemical weapons.

The Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization can be found online at: http://www-pmcd.apgea.army.mil/index.html