A KIND OF chemical warfare is being conducted by Colorado against Utah. It centers on the Army's 888 Weteye nerve gas bombs at Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. Some vapor leaks (small, contained, causing no injuries) and a storage location 5 1/2 miles off Stapleton Airport's north runway have long agitated many Colorado citizens. This year Sen. Gary Hart, running for reelection, put into the just-passed defense procurement bill an order to the Pentagon either to dismantle the Weteyes or to remove them from Colorado in 12 months. Since the government holds that Weteyes should be retained as a deterrent to Soviet chemical warfare and as a bargaining chip in continuing chemical arms control talks, the practical effect of the Hart amendment is to force the Army to move them. The Tooele depot in Utah is, everyone agrees, the only logical alternative. But in Utah many people are no less aroused than the Coloradans. Gov. Scott Matheson, also running for reelection, is especially concerned.
The political complextion of Utah, whose (conservative) congressional delegation is pretty much at ease with the idea of hosting the Weteyes, may finally make a transfer politically feasible, assuming that the Army shows that the process of moving is itself safe. It remains the case that there is some irreducible amount of danger in the holding and handling of chemical weapons. The Army concedes this even as it boasts of the Weteye and Tooele safety records. It will also remain the case that the very notion of chemical warfare stirs widespread horror. Such horror has constituted perhaps the highest barrier to the conduct of chemical war.
Sen. Hart insisted that Weteyes were so dangerous they had to be dismantled or moved. Meanwhile, some of his critics point out, he opposed a Senate decision to produce the much safer binary warheads that would replace Weteyes, proposing instead that binaries be studied further. But this was the right course. The safety issue must be resolved, but the further issue is whether chemical weapons of any kind serve American security needs. Even before the vapor leaks began to call public attention to the Weteye, its military contribution was dubious, since West Germany -- the one, country for whose defense the United States built it -- refused to receive it or contemplate its use in any way. As for binaries, there has been neither a serious public debate nor an administration request. In voting to produce binaries, Congress has been swept along by a general catch-up-with-the-Russians fever and by allegations, publicly pronounced unconfirmed by American intelligence, that Soviets and their proxies have been conducting chemical war.
To break the United States' 10-year production moratorium and make a new chemical weapon, without demonstrating a benefit to American security, is the most troubling development in the 1980 chemical war stir. That is far more important than any argument over the right state in which to store, 6,000 miles from the prospective battlefield in any case, an old weapon that no one knows how to use.