Utah got burned in weapons screw-up
A pricey stockpile-disposal facility was torn down due to faulty conclusions
Article Last Updated: 09/28/2008 08:59:29 AM MDT
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The Army spent $4.7 million to build this neutralization facility, intended to destroy Utah’s…
That’s how long it was supposed to take to rid Utah of its stockpile of the deadly blister agent lewisite.
The plan was to use neutralization, a chemical process that has been used in other states to eliminate swimming pool-sized stores of chemical weapons. Environmental activists broadly prefer it to incineration.
But a decade of missteps – including flawed tests that wrongly indicated neutralization didn’t work – delayed the process. And just a few years after building a multimillion-dollar facility at Tooele’s Deseret Chemical Depot to get the job done, the Army tore the building down.
Now the Army wants to try again – by building a new incinerator. And what was once a point of rare agreement between the military and its critics has turned contentious again.
‘A lot of naiveté’: The military had been destroying obsolete chemical weapons for decades before the U.S. added its signature to the international Chemical Weapons Convention on Jan. 13, 1993.
The treaty kicked things into high gear. With an international mandate to eliminate the stockpile – and armed with a 1984 National Research Council decision that incineration was safe – the Army planned to burn away its weapons by 2003, four years ahead of the convention’s 2007 deadline.
Maggio recognizes that the initial goal was unrealistic.
But in the early 1990s, “We were a bunch of engineers who believed that there was an engineering solution to everything,” Maggio said. “There was a lot of naiveté there.”
Utah’s 25,000 pounds of lewisite posed a particular problem because more than a third of the deadly mixture is arsenic – which the Army determined it would be unable to keep from pouring out of an incinerator smokestack. Instead, the military decided to destroy lewisite through neutralization – a process in which hot water is used to separate deadly chemical compounds into less volatile component parts.
But an analysis of the byproducts created in lab tests kept showing that not all the deadly compounds were breaking down. In other words, Maggio said, “we had agent that we couldn’t get rid of.”
For help, the American engineers looked north, where Canada had destroyed its own small stockpile of lewisite a few years earlier.
In 1995, the military wrote a proposal to
To understand the debate between neutralization and incineration, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how the U.S. Army got into the chemical-demilitarization game.
The use of weaponized agents such as mustard and lewisite has been banned under international treaty since 1925. But a ban on the development of such weapons didn’t come around for another 70 years.
As the Cold War simmered between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through the latter half of the 20th century, both nations amassed large arsenals of battlefield chemical weapons – and both nations allegedly provided assistance to allied nations that wanted to develop their own stockpiles.
Under the law, those weapons were to be used for deterrence alone.
But laws mean little to the lawless. In 1980, Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq – then an ally of the United States – went to war with Iran, bringing his biological and chemical arsenal of mustard, tabun and cyanide into the fight. The photographs that came out of Iran – and later from Iraq’s own Kurdish north, where Saddam’s forces deployed mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide against separatists and civilians alike – horrified the world.
With the end of the Cold War, the race to create such weapons was replaced by a growing international consensus that the hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical agents being stored in nations across the globe must be destroyed.
Still, the Cold War superpowers were among the latest nations to come to the table. As late as 1990, the U.S. was still in the business of building sarin-filled artillery shells, said chemical weapons historian Jonathan Tucker.
“One of the factors that finally gave the U.S. interest in the ban was the Persian Gulf War of 1991,” said Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for NonProliferation Studies. “There was a real threat that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons against U.S. forces.”
On Jan. 13, 1993, the U.S. and the Russian Federation were among nearly 100 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Soon, the clock would be ticking.
- Matthew D. LaPlante
build a $4.7 million facility based on Canadian specifications. Once the plant opened, the process was expected to take about 120 days, according to documents filed by the military at the time. State officials approved the plan and issued a permit. The building went up at the Chemical Agent Munition Disposal System (CAMDS) site, about 12 miles south of Tooele.
‘There was a kaboom’: Although the solution to its lewisite problem seemingly was in the bag, the Army faced another challenge – growing public concern about the burning of other weapons, such as mustard, VX and sarin.
In Utah, those anxieties were stoked by whistle-blowers claiming safety and environmental violations at Deseret Chemical Depot – and amplified by the history of Cold War atomic tests, which left “downwinders” exposed to nuclear fallout.
Under congressional order, the Army began exploring alternatives to incineration, using the research and development arms of CAMDS to tackle the task. The lewisite program was tabled.
Though the military ultimately held fast to studies that indicated burning was safe, the research done at CAMDS contributed to decisions elsewhere to use neutralization over incineration for some agents.
But burning continued in Utah, where the Army had gotten a head start by building its incineration facility before the tide of controversy and had found relatively receptive government leaders – particularly after agreeing to pay cash-strapped Tooele County more than $13 million in “hazard pay.”
In 2002, with incineration of Utah’s stockpile of other chemical agents under way, CAMDS turned back to lewisite. By then, however, several of the Canadian experts it intended to bring south had moved on to other jobs. Some had retired. At least one had died.
“Essentially, we had started to lose the basic knowledge and comfort with the technology,” Maggio said.
Instead, American engineers took up the task of operating the CAMDS neutralization facility themselves, working from notes provided by their Canadian counterparts.
But on July 2, 2002, an accident led officials to fear that lewisite had escaped from the lab’s ventilation system. While investigating, Maggio said, the engineers came up with a disconcerting surprise: The Canadians had indeed destroyed their lewisite, but they also had suffered a significant setback – a chemical reaction that caused an explosion.Chemical Materials Agency senior engineer Cheryl
“There was a kaboom,” Maggio said. “Obviously that created a considerable amount of concern.”
Neutralization efforts using other processes were under way in Maryland and expected to be used in several other states. But CAMDS never recovered from the one-two combination of its accident and the realization that the Canadian process may not have been as safe as once thought.
The process was abandoned, the building later razed.
‘Important to look forward’: For Chris Thomas, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, the saddest irony in the story of neutralization in Utah is the twist he learned just last week.
Long before American engineers decided to contract with Canada, the neutralization process they were using seemed to be unsuccessful. But earlier this month, Army officials told The Salt Lake Tribune that, as it turns out, it wasn’t their original process that was broken.
Rather, the testing regimen was not differentiating between broken and connected chemical bonds – what Chemical Materials Agency spokesman Greg Mahall called “the proverbial ‘false positive.’ ” The process that had been tested many years and many millions of dollars ago was, in fact, effective.
“It’s frustrating that the Army’s poor execution prevented Utah from having neutralization a decade ago, but it’s important to look forward,” Thomas said. “Neutralization is a more protective technology at a competitive price, and as a taxpayer, that’s where I’d prefer to see my tax dollars spent.”
Even if that means rebuilding a new facility to replace one that was knocked down just a few years ago? Thomas says yes.
But the Army says no.
A year past the original treaty deadline and with less than four years to an extended and final deadline, the military now wants to build a small, new incinerator specifically for the lewisite.
Army officials say they will tap expertise from the much larger mustard incineration plant at Deseret Chemical Depot.
The cost has not been determined, Mahall said, but it would include special filters to eliminate arsenic from emissions – the problem that prevented the burning of lewisite more than a decade ago.
Mahall acknowledged the story of lewisite in Utah reads a bit like a soap opera. But he also noted that no one ever thought about how such weapons would be destroyed when they were created.
And that, he said, has been a task that has been more complicated, expensive and timeconsuming than anyone expected.
“Does hindsight ever show room for improvements? I’ll bet almost always.”
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