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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Burning our Chemical weapons

Air Date: Week of

Under the Chemical Weapons Treaty, the US must dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. The U.S. military's stockpile includes some of the deadliest chemicals in the world, including VX nerve gas where a single drop is enough to kill. The Army has already built the first of eight incinerators it says will destroy the weapons in a safe, cost-effective manner, but critics claim that method is dangerous and its effects on nearby communities uncertain.


CURWOOD: In 1993, the United States joined more than 140 other nations in signing the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and committed itself to destroying its massive stockpile of poison gas munitions. Some of these weapons are already leaking, and that's added urgency to Defense Department plans to build 8 chemical weapons incinerators around the country, at a cost of about a billion dollars each. The Army has nearly completed the first of these incinerators, but if a small but vocal group of opponents have their way, it may never open. Dan Grossman has our story.

(Sheep bleating in field)

GROSSMAN: Grantsville, Utah, is a tranquil desert community, where families commonly raise barnyard animals right in their yards. When Chip Ward moved into this tidy town in the shadows of the Stansbury Mountains, it appeared distant from society's ills. But less than 20 miles away, the Army is getting ready to start up its first chemical weapons incinerator in the continental US. The Army has assured neighbors that the incinerator presents no health hazards. But Chip Ward isn't convinced. Ward is worried that the plant will emit toxic materials that could have long-term health effects on his family.

WARD: How will we find out what these incinerators actually do to the people who live in the vicinity? Well, I can tell you. We will find out, and we will prove it to all of you over 10, 15, 20 years, with our tissues and our blood. We are the guinea pigs, really, to find out what happens.

(Chemical weapons storage depot. VOICE: Okay, I'm going to lower it down over your head, coming down...)

GROSSMAN: At the Army's chemical weapons storage depot, workers and visitors to the new incinerator have to carry a gas mask at all times, and test it out to make sure it works.

(VOICE: And at any time during this test, you have any difficulties breathing or smell banana oil, notify me immediately. Normal breathing...)

GROSSMAN: Chemical weapons include some of the deadliest materials ever made. For instance, a single pinhead-sized drop of VX nerve gas is enough to kill. The depot contains nearly half of the 30,000 tons of chemical agents in the US arsenal. The US built a variety of chemical weapons from World War I right up through the 1980s. Now, the new Chemical Weapons Treaty, and concern about the arsenal's decay, has put the US under pressure to get rid of the arsenal within the next decade.

THOMAS: There are leakers and there is a risk to continued storage, and our desire is to reduce that risk by disposing the munitions.

GROSSMAN: Timothy Thomas is project manager of the Army's new incinerator. He says the process of dismantling munitions is difficult and dangerous, especially since the weapons were not designed to be taken apart. Inside the incinerator building, workers are putting the finishing touches on armored conveyor belts for shuttling live munitions through the plant, and heavy steel blast doors for rooms where explosives are removed. Thomas says the process is like an assembly line, only in reverse. Each component will be painstakingly separated from the others by automated machines in sealed compartments, while operators watch on TV monitors in protected control rooms.

(Machine sounds. VOICE: These are the machines we were talking about. This is a rocket shear machine. You see the shear itself, and you see the blade on the shear...)

GROSSMAN: The deadly liquids will be siphoned out and explosive charges removed. Liquid agents, metal containers, and the explosives will each be sent in remote-controlled carts to three different incinerators. Thomas says incineration is the most efficient way to get rid of these weapons, but activists disagree.

VINCENT: We're dealing with probably one of the most primitive technologies imaginable: fire.

GROSSMAN: Ross Vincent is a chemical engineer who is fighting another chemical weapons incinerator planned for his home state, Colorado.

VINCENT: What incinerators are in their varying configurations is different efforts to contain that primitive technology in some engineered fashion. I have never seen, and to the best of my knowledge there has not ever been, an incinerator that ever operated under the kind of optimum conditions that their promoters tend to describe when they're trying to sell them to communities.

GROSSMAN: Vincent and Ward are concerned because like other incinerators of hazardous waste, these incinerators will emit dioxins, furans, and PCBs: chemicals believed to cause cancer and other health effects, even in extremely small doses. And unlike other incinerators, these plants will also release tiny and, some critics say, potentially harmful traces of the chemical weapons themselves. The Army counters that the amount of chemicals in the plant's fumes will be minute, and will be diluted to insignificance by the time they leave the property.

In addition to Utah and Colorado, chemical weapons are stored at sites in Kentucky, Oregon, Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, and Indiana. The Army has decided that moving the stockpiles is too dangerous, so it plans to build incinerators in each of these communities. Vincent agrees that the weapons should stay where they are, but he says there are other ways to destroy them, some of which might be safer. The National Research Council, the Federal government's most prestigious source of advice about science and technology, supports his claim. It recently issued a report describing a variety of alternative technologies.

LONGWELL: For example, there's molten metals and plasma arcs and a whole bunch of things.

GROSSMAN: John Longwell chairs the Council's Alternative Technology Committee. he says there are nearly two dozen different options for destroying chemical agents. But he points out that no matter what method is used, there will always be some toxic residues that will have to be disposed of. He says there is no alternative to incineration for disposing of the weapon's metal and explosive parts. So far, there is no concerted movement in Congress to rethink the Army's overall commitment to incineration, but some representatives of the districts where incinerators are planned are trying to keep individual plants from opening. Charles Baronian heads the Army's Chemical Weapons Destruction Office. He says the service continues to have an open mind about incineration.

BARONIAN: We are not wedded to incineration. We're wedded to getting rid of this material as safely and as soundly as we can get rid of it.

GROSSMAN: Still, Baronian says developing any other method will cost another hundred million dollars and take years of research. And he stresses that there are risks just to leaving the weapons in place. But opponents of incineration say the risks of going ahead could be greater than the risks of waiting. They argue that the Chemical Weapons Treaty deadline of 2004 is arbitrary, and that the Army is just using it as an excuse for not developing alternative methods. They say they may try to remove that deadline by lobbying against ratification of the treaty in the Senate. Whatever happens, the 8 communities where the chemical weapons are stockpiled will be living under a cloud of uncertainty for years to come.

For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.



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