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10. Army’s Plan to Burn Nerve Gas and Toxins in Oregon Threatens Columbia River Basin

Source: EARTH FIRST! Title: “Army Plans to Burn Surplus Nerve Gas Stockpile,” Date: March 1997, Authors: Mark Brown and Kaym Jones

SSU Censored Researcher: Brad Smith
SSU Faculty Evaluator. Ellen Krebs

Despite evidence that incineration is the worst option for destroying the nation’s obsolete chemical weapons stockpile stored at the Umatilla Army Depot, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) gave the green light to the Army and Raytheon Corporation to spend $1.3 billion of taxpayer money to construct five chemical weapons incinerators. Despite strong protests, on February 7, 1997, the EQC made its final decision to accept the United States Army’s application to build a chemical weapons incineration facility near Hermiston, Oregon.

Some examples of the chemicals to be incinerated include nerve gas and mustard agents; bioaccumulative organo-chlorines such as dioxins, furans, chloromethane, vinyl chloride, and PCBs; metals such as lead, mercury, copper, and nickel; and toxins such as arsenic. These represent only a fraction of the thousands of chemicals and metals that will potentially be emitted throughout the Columbia River watershed and from the toxic ash and effluents which pose a significant health threat via entrance to the aquifer.

Citizen groups, environmental organizations, health organizations, and local Native Americans have protested incineration of the chemical agents stored at the Umatilla Army depot. Extensive technical literature supports the Native American opposition to chemical agent incineration. Cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, immune system disorder, and neurological damage can occur at even very low exposure to these toxic incinerator emissions.

Their position is reinforced by the problems that continue to arise in other incinerator facilities. The Umatilla incinerator will be modeled after the Toole, Utah Chemical Weapons Disposal Facility. Yet Toole Army manager Tim Thomas admitted there has been agent detection in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning vestibules since Toole began incinerating in 1996. Additionally, there have been agent stack alarms once or twice a week, and the Army doesn’t know why. Decontamination fluid continues to leak though cracks in the Toole concrete floor into the electrical control room.

These serious revelations about chemical agent incinerator defects are a mirror of those reported at the Army’s prototype facility, Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Destruction System (JACADS), located 800 miles southwest of Hawaii. According to the Army’s own reports, a fire, an explosion, 32 internal releases of a nerve agent, and two nerve gas releases into the atmosphere have resulted in EPA fines of $100,000. The JACADS facility is 450 percent over budget and had over 30 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act non-compliances in 1995.

Contrary to what incineration advocates claim, there is no urgent need to incinerate, since the stockpile at Umatilla has small potential for explosion or chain reaction as a result of decay. A 1994 General Accounting Office report estimates that the actual number of years for safe weapons storage is 120 years rather than the 17.7 years originally estimated by the National Research Council. Thus, the timeline for action could conceivably be lengthened until all the alternatives—such as chemical neutralization, molten metals, electrochemical oxidation, and solvated electron technology (SET)—are considered. A delay is supported by a National Academy of Sciences report, entitled “Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technologies,” which states that there has been sufficient development to warrant re-evaluation of alternative technologies for chemical agent destruction.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR MARK BROWN: “Even a cursory glance at the facts of the Army’s nerve gas incineration program shows an alarming and unacceptable risk to human health and to ecosystem integrity. Hundreds of thousands of people within the vicinity of nerve gas storage sites will be adversely affected by the incineration program. The safety violations, human health threats, and environmental degradation are too great to ignore. Incineration is an antiquated technology that is unsafe and should not be considered an option for the safe disposals of the 60 million pounds of chemical weapons stored at the eight stockpile locations across the country.

“In May 1997, Oregon activists successfully stopped the Federal Munitions Rule from taking precedence over Oregon State permits. If granted, it would have allowed nerve gas to be imported to Oregon from other sites with the approval of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“In November 1997, several alternative technologies passed preliminary testing by the federal government, yet they are not being considered for Oregon.

There is a citizen lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Army pending in Oregon State Court to stop incinerator construction from continuing. This is our last chance in Oregon.

“More than 100 activists representing citizen groups in 40 states are backing a formal ‘environmental justice’ legal complaint filed December 18, 1997, against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for approving the construction of the U.S. Army chemical weapons incinerator in Anniston, Alabama—a community highly populated by African-American and low-income people.

“The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is scheduled to approve Raytheon as the contractor for Oregon’s stockpile incineration facility at Umatilla Army Depot. Raytheon is responsible for the prototype facility in the South Pacific discussed earlier that has operated in a reckless fashion for seven years.

“The mainstream press response to my story was abysmal at best. I flew in Greenpeace Senior Scientist Pat Costner, recognized as an expert on incineration, to educate the Oregon media. We spent two hours with the board of editors of The Oregonian (the largest paper in Oregon) discussing the issue. They never ran any story on the alternatives, and made almost no mention of the alternatives or Pat Costner’s visit. They had done a pro-incineration editorial a few months earlier, and ran two short opinion pieces (I wrote one of them). The majority of the coverage was blatantly biased in favor of incineration. One of the bidders for the Umatilla contract was Westinghouse (CBS).

“For more information, the best source is the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Craig Williams (Tel: 606/986-7565).”

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