By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
In 1987, the Army estimated it would cost $2 billion to dispose of the 27,768 metric tons of chemical weapons in its stockpile.
Today, the price has mushroomed to $28 billion, and the military is about a third of the way through the job. An array of problems -- including technical challenges and protests from community activists concerned about the impact of burning the weapons -- has dogged the progress. In May, officials announced the Army will be unable to destroy all the weapons by 2012 -- which would be a five-year extension to the current deadline.
"We underestimated the job, the complexity of the job and this high-hazard environment we have to operate in," said Michael A. Parker, director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency.
The United States has the second-largest inventory of chemical weapons next to Russia, which has 40,000 tons of warfare agents and is also struggling to meet the 2007 disposal deadline under an international treaty dating to 1997. Both countries are seeking five-year extensions.
The Army is incinerating weapons in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, and has finished work on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Under pressure from activists, the Pentagon has opted for chemically neutralizing warfare agents in Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky and Maryland. It has completed work in Maryland, but plant construction in Colorado and Kentucky will only begin this year. By Parker's estimate, the chemical neutralization facilities will not finish disposing warfare agents until 2014.
"We are making progress every day," Parker said. "Some days are better than others."
Congress mandated disposal of the weapons a decade ago, and ever since, the Defense Department has been battling environmental activists and some members of Congress over its reliance on burning the chemicals.
Pentagon officials have argued that incineration is most efficient. But Craig E. Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Berea, Ky., said that emissions could have lasting effects on communities such as his. Working with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), he has spent nearly two decades pushing the Army to develop a chemical neutralization approach.
"We basically ended up forcing them to consider alternative disposal methods," McConnell said. "Environmental cleanup, I guess, is not high in the mission statement" of the Defense Department.
Parker said the Army does not oppose chemical neutralization but was simply taking a pragmatic approach.
"Incineration was a much more mature technology in the late '80s and early '90s," he said. "The department was put in an impossible bind. The Congress mandated some very aggressive disposal schedules, and in order to comply with the law the department pursued the single option that was available, which was to use incineration technology."
The approach has produced mixed results. Chemical agents have escaped three times from incinerator plant stacks and twice from plant equipment, Parker said, adding that the release exceeded the permitted federal limit only once.
But critics such as Jason Groenewold, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah, said those chemical releases, such as the one from Utah's Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, add to air pollution and could have long-term effects on residents.
"On all accounts we were misled," Groenewold said. "We've had tremendous delays and problems."
The plant in Tooele, Utah, has been at the center of the controversy. In the mid-1990s, the former general manager and chief safety manager left and suggested that the plant's operations were flawed. Gary M. Millar, the former general manager, wrote the plant's top management in November 1996 that he had to conclude that their actions "are typical of the senior management at Three Mile Island before their nuclear incident or at NASA before the Challenger incident."
While Millar's dire predictions have not materialized, the plant has experienced problems. A 1999 leak briefly exposed seven plant workers to nerve agent. The Pentagon determined the employees were not harmed, though the following year a former worker suggested he had suffered cognitive and memory problems because of long-term exposure at the plant.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors the public health impact of the chemical weapons disposal, and its officials remain confident that incinerators do not pose a threat and are no more dangerous than chemical neutralization.
But some community activists question that. Two mathematics professors at Berea College, a liberal-arts school near one of the planned disposal facilities, constructed a computer model 10 years ago to determine how dioxins released from the proposed incinerator would affect families in the area. Jan Pearce and James K. Blackburn-Lynch determined that when it rained, subsistence farmers living near the incinerator would accumulate dioxins in their fatty tissues that would exceed the federal legal limit.
Craig E. Williams, a Vietnam veterans leader who won the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize this past spring for his work opposing the incineration of warfare agents, said he spent 20 years urging defense officials to listen to the people who live and work near chemical weapons stockpiles.
"My overwhelming focus on this was to force them to prioritize the safety of the community and the environmental impact of destroying the most dangerous weapons ever devised," Williams said.