The Army has spent seven years and $64 million to design a facility to destroy tons of nerve gas it no longer wants, but the operation has been held up more than a year waiting for approval of a volunteer program to test the protective suits which must be worn by those working with the deadly gases.

Even if the experiments are approved and are successful, the project - which the Army admits was specifically designed to avoid the accidents which have plagued the service's past attempts to destroy or transport nerve gas - must run a gantlet of congressional and Environmental Protection Agency reviewers before it may begin.

The disposal facility, known as CAMDS (Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System), is on a 45,000-acre tract outside Tooelle, Utah, and proposes to destroy more than 700 tons of nerve and mustard gas, a "small fraction" of the total stored there.

The Army is hoping CAMDS will be safer than its last disposal effort at Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, where 100 persons working with the gas between 1974 and 1976 were accidentally exposed to the gas, according to an Army spokesman.

But EPA has expressed "environmental reservations" about the Army's draft environmental impact statement on CAMDS, criticizing the report for completely failing to discuss the "potential hazards" to communities in the vicinity of CAMDS. Tooelle, population 14,000, is 16 miles from CAMDS. Salt Lake City is 45 miles away.

Chief designer of CAMDS, James Cauller, said every precaution has been taken to ensure that CAMDS will be safe, but he admits that "there's no way of assuring" an accident could not occur.

The Army claims it has no choice but to dispose of the gas. One thousand containers of nerve gas have been founding leaking and have, to be repackaged. Countless others, many manufactured in the 1960s, have exceeded their "shelflife" and are deteriorating, according to an Army spokesman.

The Army says that recontaining and isolating the "leakers" has become a "routine matter." That "routine" includes evacuation of all personnel from the area except specially trained units wearing self-contained protective suits.

These units enter the storage areas carrying chemical detectors and caged rabbits to test the toxicity of the leak. "If the rabbit is not alive, then we have to look doubly hard," said Maj. Dale Keller, an Army spokesman.

Meanwhile, the cost of monitoring and storing the vast gas arensal, much of which the Army considers "unservicable and obsolete," is prohibitive, the Army said.

But the safety of those working at the disposal facility is of grave concern to the Army and federal agencies.

The Army maintains that it had "an outstanding safety record" at Rocky Mountain, and that although there were 100 confirmed cases of exposure to nerve gas, none had to be hospitalized, and there was no "time loss" from work.

However, a former worker at the Rocky Mountain facility, who refused to be identified, charges that some workers suffering from exposure were too ill to work but were paid to remain on the site so that the Army would not have to record work absences due to accidents.

The Army denies this, but acknowledged that by studying the effects of nerve gas on personnel exposed at the Rocky Mountain arsenal, as well as those who subjected themselves to nerve gas as part of a volunteer program, the Army has drawn a detailed picture of the effects which nerve gas has on the human body.

"In normal order of appearance," those symptoms are: "running nose, tightness of the chest; dimness of vision and pinpointing of eye pupils; difficulty in breathing; drooling and excessive sweating nausea, vomiting, cramps, and involuntary defecation and urination; twitching, jerking, and staggering, and headaches, confusion, and drowsiness, coma and convulsion. These symptoms are followed by cessation of breathing and death," according to the draft environmental impact statement the Army filled with the EPA for the CAMDS project.

A fine mist of the odorless, colorless gas amounting to less than a single drop can kill a human within minutes, according to Army statistics.

To protect those who will be working within toxic areas at CAMDS, the Army has designed a pressurized suit, complete with its own oxygen supply, into which persons are hermotically sealed and cut out of when they leave the toxic areas.

The suits are burned after each day's use.

"They've been tested as far as possible except for the ultimate test of putting a man inside," said Lt. Col. Francis Durel, assistant project manger.

About 60 persons will be working in the toxic areas of CAMDS, mostly civilians between 35 and 45 years old, with high school educations or less, and about 15 per cent are "Spanish-speaking minorities," according to Cauller.

One of the criteria for hiring the $12,000-a-year job was strong lung capacity, because any limitation of lung capacity would increase the effects of exposure to nerve gas, he said. "They are recruited from the depot [Tooelle Army Depot] or from other installations like Rocky Mountain," Cauller said.

But it is not only the hazards posed to workers at the disposal site which concern many. "The concern is not the 'demilling' for dtmilitarization, as the process of weapons destruction is known. It's moving the stuff to the 'demil' site that's the problem," said Mike Youngren, press secretary for Utah Gov. Seott M. Matheson.

Concerns were not eased when, on Aug. 19, two locomotives, about to be hitched to a train loaded with 175 tons of mustard gas, "ran away" without a conductor and raced at 50 to 60 m.p.h. before slamming into a train loaded with hogs 16 miles away.

Hundreds of hogs were killed.

Although the locomotives "ran away" before they had been coupled to the train loaded with mustard, it raised a question as to what might have happened had the mustard gas train already been joined to the locomotive.

"That points out to us how incredible an accident can be. If someone said that could happen, we would have declared it 'an impossibility,'" Cauller said.

Matheson is trying to hold off shipment of 900 nerve gas bombs by C-141 aircraft from Denver to near Tooelle until he gets some questions answered.

"What would happen if one of those bombs dropped? What if they leaked while the plane was in midair? No one has given me any details except about the route," Matheson said.

CAMDS is also haunted by the memory of a 1968 incident near Dugway proving grounds, 35 miles away, where 6,800 sheep died of nerve gas poisoning. The Army compensated the owner for the lost sheep and later acknowledged that "something less" than 20 pounds of VX nerve gas had escaped from the plane which had been conducting open air testing of the gas miles upwind from the grasing flocks.

Before 1970 the Army got rid of its "leakers" and other unwanted gas weapons by dumpling them into the sea or incinerating them. As part of Operation Chase, the Army dumped 27,000 tons of obsolete gas weapons, sealed in concrete, into the Altantic Ocean 253 miles off the continental shelf east of Cape Canaveral.

Congress, responding to an increased environmental consciousness, banned disposal of chemical weapons within or outside of the United States after Oct. 7, 1970, unless such chemicals were first rendered "harmless to man and his environment." So the Army was forced to find another way to get rid of the thousands of tons of nerve gas it no longer wanted.

CAMDS was the answer. Located in a sagebrush and greasewood landscape, it is the most advanced and ambitious "demilitarization" facility to date.

It will take some 130,000 gas bombs, land mines, mortar shells and containers and feed them into airtight units, where they will be pierced and the nerve gas drained out of them and chemically detoxified.

Chemical waste from the nerve gas will be dried and the resulting salt stored in lined drums for later burial at a "scientific landfill." But the EPA said it wants more information on the nature of these chemical wastes and the manner in which the Army proposes to dispose of them.

The containers and projectiles, once drained of nerve agents, will be sliced by a bank of saws and fed into furnaces for detoxification.

Most of the process is done by remote control under the guidance of computers. Every phase of the operation is monitored by closed-circuit television.

"We went overboard on design safety," said Cauller. "It's as safe as any industrial operation in the country. But there's no way of assuring there won't be the potential for some kind of accident."