for more information contact:
Mike Cowley (801) 558-2505
Cindy King (801) 486-9848
Craig Williams (859) 986-7565
for immediate release: September 19, 2000
The Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste has issued a letter to the Army granting permission to resume burning rockets full of deadly nerve agent at their Tooele chemical weapons incinerator. The plant's deactivation furnace (DFS) has been shut down for more than four months since it released more than three times the allowable amount of nerve agent out its smokestack on May 8th of this year.
Incinerator critics charge that plant engineers have not addressed the root cause of the system's failure and that once again the Army, its contractor, and state regulators have colluded to avoid public scrutiny and input. "Until they admit that they have by-passed the system's intended design and are basically experimenting as they go, more leaks are inevitable," said Mike Cowley, spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based Families Against Incinerator Risk (FAIR).
The May nerve agent release occurred after an incompletely drained rocket jammed in a feed chute as it was being forced into the furnace. Maintenance workers were sent in with hoses to try and dislodge the jam, at which point fluctuations in furnace temperature and pressure started to occur. Shortly after, nerve agent monitors in the stack set off alarms and agent was released into the open atmosphere.
Because alarms go off frequently on almost a daily basis and are attributed to other causes, plant officials initially treated the incident as a "false alarm." They decided to ignore it while they struggled to regain control of the furnace. When lab results later confirmed that the alarm was in fact caused by agent, Army officials still waited over 4 hours to notify the Tooele County Emergency Management center of the release even though they are required to do so immediately.
Critics have expressed concern that the root cause of the problem that led to the release has not been addressed. "They are burning nerve agent in a manner that was never intended and under conditions that they refuse to test," said Cowley
According to Cowley, the original design of the incinerator was based on draining nerve agent from the munitions and then removing explosives from the metal casings so that each component could be incinerated in different furnaces under different operating conditions. However, due to the "gelling" of agent inside of the munitions, the Army is no longer able to drain the agent out of a significant portion of the remaining stockpile. As a result, he said the Army is now burning full rockets in a furnace that was not designed to take more than a slight residual amount of agent.
"Given the Army's appalling history of military experiments, you'd think state regulators would at least require the Army to test what they are doing," said Cowley. "It makes you wonder who the regulators are really there to protect."
Craig Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), a national coalition of grassroots organizations advocating for the use of safer, non-incineration alternatives, expressed concern that the public was not able to formally comment on the changes that were made by the Army.
"The Army wants to go quietly about their business and doesn't want anyone to scrutinize what they are doing," said Williams. "If that means circumventing required public participation processes, then so be it."
Williams said the changes made to the deactivation furnace will not ensure that this type of event won't occur again in the future. The Army has installed an "isolation valve" which is supposed to prevent unwanted gasses from escaping out the smokestack. Williams said when they used a manual version of this on April 30th of this year, it nearly caused a fire in the ventilation system. "It was a near miss." The Army has also installed a "wash down" in the furnace feed chute to wash down rocket parts that get stuck as they are being fed into the furnace. According to Williams, "As long as they continue to shove full rockets in there, they're going to have more problems."
Among the groups' concerns from investigations conducted on the release:
Nerve agent is being incinerated in a manner that was never intended.
Some nerve agent monitors that were on-line during the release and then tested afterwards did not function properly.
The emergency notification system was not utilized.
There is no indication that all problems identified in the program have been fixed at the incinerator.
Workers have not been properly trained for their job duties.
The Army was issued approval to begin operations on September 18 and is expected to restart operations September 20. "There are going to be more problems as long as the Army continues to try and work with this failed system," said Cowley. "They have merely put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."
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