Elimination of chemical weapons stockpile brings end of federal emergency money
TOOELE — The elimination of Utah's chemical weapons stockpile will also mean the elimination of millions of dollars in federal funding to the state that helped pay for sophisticated emergency command centers, equipment and training for thousands of front-line responders.
The destruction of the last two-ton bulk containers of the deadly blister agent Lewisite finished the incineration and decontamination process Saturday at Tooele County's Deseret Chemical Depot.
With that process comes the destruction of the world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons — some 13,617 tons of the material manufactured for war but never used.
Seven years before the depot started destruction of the stockpile in 1996, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army began sending federal dollars to Utah to help carve out emergency response efforts sufficient to counter the threat posed by handling the deadly chemicals.
Through the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, $124 million in funding has come to Utah since 1989. Other host states of chemical stockpiles — such as Washington, Alabama and Maryland — received their share of CSEPP funds as well to help locals mount a unified response in case of a chemical release.
"The federal government realized that if you are going to bring something so horrible to a community, you have to make sure your community is prepared to respond if something goes wrong," said the state's emergency management spokesman, Joe Dougherty.
"This is one of those areas where you see the federal government has done things exactly as they should have and met its obligations."
The money helped pay for the construction of Tooele County's state-of-the-art emergency management building that features self-contained bunkers with enough water, air and sewer capacity to last up to 10 days.
"This money has benefited Tooele County immensely over the past 23 years. It has provided many benefits beyond our Emergency Operations Center," said Wade Mathews, the program's spokesman.
An estimated $75 million of Utah's total share of CSEPP money was funneled to Tooele County, which saw its already scarce resources strained at the prospect of organizing and paying for a response appropriate for a chemical weapons event.
The money paid for the installation of 62 outdoor warning sirens in designated zones in the area, 19 reader boards along highways in the depot's vicinity and a microwave communications network with mountaintop repeaters that allows for cross-jurisdictional communications among responders in Tooele, Utah and Salt Lake counties.
"Now, Tooele County's readiness capability has been described as one of the best in the nation for its size, for being a rural county in the West," Mathews said.
The money that has been funneled to Utah on an annual basis — as much as $10.3 million in 2005 — now goes away, just like the stockpile.
"Tooele County is going to see that federal funding come to an abrupt end very soon," he said. "It means our budget will be greatly reduced, but our department will remain. We have had to downsize two of our employees."
About 1,400 jobs will be eliminated due to the end of Utah's chemical stockpile program. That number includes civilian contract employees — as many as 1,100 — and several hundred Department of Defense jobs.
Depot officials say many of those jobs will drift to Kentucky or Colorado, two states that have yet to commence chemical weapons destruction programs. Other jobs can filter over to the Army's Dugway Proving Ground and Tooele Army Depot as positions become available.
Alaine Grieser, depot spokeswoman, said many in the workforce lingered on past retirement to carry out the elimination of the stockpile. Full closure activities won't be complete until 2014, and by then, only a handful of people will remain.
While the emergency preparedness money and depot-related jobs are going by the wayside, not so for the infrastructure, knowledge and skills that have been built up over the years.
Bob Fowler, medical program manager for the state health department's Bureau of EMS and Preparedness, said the early planning for the demilitarization of chemical munitions helped immensely in the state's preparations for the 2002 Winter Games.
The framework for coordination among emergency management, law enforcement, public health and other agencies had been well-established by then, helping Utah carry out a successful Winter Olympics event in 2002, he said.
Fowler added that 10 northern Utah hospitals, the Utah Poison Control Center and multiple other first-response agencies were beneficiaries of the CSEPP money, with dollars directed at professional toxic chemical training, chemical detectors, decontamination systems and personal protective equipment.
The dedication of resources made Utah a model for other communities around the nation that play host to chemical stockpiles, Fowler said.
The department recently hosted visitors from Pueblo, Colo., as that state ramps up to begin destruction activities of its stockpile.
With that infrastructure put in place through use of CSEPP money, state and local emergency officials say they are better equipped to confront any nature of a disaster that may come this way.
"Emergency response is an important capability to maintain in Tooele County despite the completion of the demilitarization out at Deseret Chemical Depot," Mathews said. "We still have the threat of earthquakes, fires and hazardous materials that are going up and down our freeways and railways regularly and our west desert industries."
Steve Sautter, manager of Salt Lake County's Joint Information Center, worked at the Umatilla chemical weapons site in Washington for nearly 10 years. That stockpile was destroyed in October.
While he was with the program there, he said there was a Navy jet crash in neighboring rural Oregon.
"The Navy brass walked into the EOC," he said, and were astounded. "It was state of the art, fantastic. Now, of course the issue is to continue to maintain these first-class facilities. … You can't put into words how much CSEPP has benefited Utah and other states that have hosted chemical stockpiles."
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