Tooele depot set to shut down anyway
Silver lining: Facility now qualifies for benefits from Army
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
TOOELE While many communities across the country are angry about their military installations possibly closing, officials and workers at Deseret Chemical Depot seem almost happy.
The depot, near Stockton, Tooele County, was Utah's only military facility recommended for closure on Friday's Base Realignment and Closure list. And that was not entirely unexpected, as the site's chemical weapons incinerator was already set to disappear in the coming years.
"The BRAC timeline really fits what we were looking at anyway," depot commander Col. Raymond T. Van Pelt said Friday. "We have pretty much always been under the mission of storing and destroying the munitions we have here in Utah."
And when that's done, the depot is set to shut down.
Since 1996 the depot has been destroying the nation's largest stockpile of chemical weapons, including GB and VX nerve agents and blistering agents like mustard, as part of an international treaty. In March, the depot destroyed its historic millionth weapon.
The treaty calls for all weapons there to be destroyed by 2012, so employees had expected to lose their jobs in the coming decade anyway. The BRAC closure process is set to start in 2006 and should take about six years.
But Jim Hansen, the former Utah congressman who serves on the BRAC commission, said he thinks it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars to tear down the incinerator.
"It would just seem to me when we're trying to get rid of a lot of junk and the best way is to pulverize it, beat it up, sell it as scrap, to take a facility such as that and tear it down just because there is a lot of paranoid people that panic every time they hear the word 'chemical,' it doesn't make any sense to me," Hansen told the Deseret Morning News.
The depot employs about 1,500 people about 1,000 contractors and 500 civilians. There are only three military personnel employed at the depot. Numbers differ from the Pentagon's BRAC list, which was based on earlier estimates.
"All of us were aware" they would lose their jobs one day, said Gary Hunter, a chemical plant operations supervisor. "We're in the business to go out of business. . . . When you're initially hit by the BRAC you panic. But now we see it as a plus, after we realize the benefits."
With the depot's inclusion on the base-closure list, the facility qualifies for benefits from the Army, including help to relocate displaced workers either to jobs at other facilities across the country or work with other government agencies. The Army also will offer job training and early retirement to some employees.
And Van Pelt said the Army has programs to help the county respond to the closure.
For its part, the county is also pleased with Friday's announcement.
"We're pretty excited they didn't touch our other bases," Dugway Proving Ground and the Tooele Army Depot, County Commission chairman Dennis Rockwell said.
Rockwell said county officials have been discussing for years how they would manage the depot's impending closure. Now they will have the military's help.
Commissioner Matt Lawrence said he is unsure how the site can be used after the depot is gone. Some older areas have leftover environmental contamination that will need to be cleaned up, but some land could be used for industrial and maybe even residential development.
Commissioners also expect some facilities may be useful to the nearby Tooele Army Depot, which could potentially use some storage igloos to expand its stockpile of conventional munitions.
Malcolm Walden, BRAC transition coordinator at TAD, said plans to expand into Deseret once it closes have long been in the works. Officials must get permission from the Department of Defense to use the munitions igloos at Deseret.
The county has faced the aftermath of a BRAC round before: In 1993, TAD lost almost 4,500 jobs. Today, the county is growing rapidly.
"When they had the last BRAC closure, we thought Tooele County would just dry up and close down," Rockwell said.
The depot has often been the target of groups unhappy with the storage of so large a chemical weapons cache initially more than 42 percent of the nation's entire stockpile.
Jason Groenewold, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said he hopes the depot's inclusion on the list marks the beginning of the end.
"Hopefully this means the incinerator won't be used for other waste-disposal projects and Utahns don't have to worry about other chemical weapons being dumped in Utah," he said.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Friday he is committed to stopping the flow of additional chemical weapons to the state.Recently, there were concerns the depot would take in more than 780,000 more chemical weapons filled with more than 5 million pounds of mustard to be shipped from Colorado and Kentucky. The Pentagon allayed those fears last month by announcing its plans to build new incinerators on the sites where the weapons are stored. Groenewold said the plans to close the depot seem to solidify that.
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