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Utah’s chemical weapons incinerator to be demolished

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 11:13 p.m. MST

Workers move the last two lewisite ton containers into the Area 10 Liquid Incinerator for destruction Jan. 17, 2012. Deseret Chemical Depots small stockpile of lewisite blister agent was the only stockpile in the United States. This movement of munitions was the last for Deseret Chemical Depot, marking the end of nearly 70 years of storing chemical weapons.

U.S. Army

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RUSH VALLEY, Tooele County — In just a few days, demolition will begin on an Army incinerator that was built to destroy the United States' stockpile of nerve agents and other weapons of mass destruction.

For many years, the incinerator was at the heart of one of Utah's biggest controversies. Its mission was accomplished with all chemical weapons destroyed at a cost of $3 billion. Now, demolition work on the incinerator plant will begin Jan. 9.

"I think everybody should be glad that that’s gone. It was probably a mistake to produce all that stuff in the first place," said Chip Ward, founder of HEAL Utah.

The Deseret Chemical Depot used to be the home for almost half of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons, mainly housing rockets and artillery shells loaded with deadly mustard and nerve agent. These weapons were so nasty that most nations of the world signed a treaty to destroy all of them.

The Army built the incinerator 20 years ago and burned the last deadly chemicals a year ago. Now, the site has been cleaned, and the plant will be torn down.

"They've had to go through the entire facility and verify there is no residual contamination above a level that would be safe," said Tom Ball with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

However, a few years ago, there was a storm of controversy, court battles, news conferences and leaked documents.

"And we ushered out a parade of whistle-blowers," Ward said.

Ward and HEAL Utah battled the Army over safety issues, sometimes with help from whistle-blowing officials at the plant.

"They all told stories of unsafe conditions, leaks, cover-ups," he said.

The turmoil settled down a few years ago, but the incinerator just kept on burning.

"The contractors, the people who worked there, were very conscientious. They tried to do the best job that they could do," Ball said. "So I would think, in my opinion, it's a job well-done."

But Ward believes critics did their job, too, pushing to help create a "safety culture" that made the plant safer than it was at the beginning.

"My experience is that polluters do not clean up, and unsafe projects do not become safe unless citizens show up, embrace their roles and these projects have critics," Ward said.

After the incinerator is torn down over the next few months, the property will still be controlled by the Army. Most of the storage bunkers will remain, suitable for storing conventional weapons without chemical agents.

The Pentagon spent $10.2 billion over three decades burning tons of deadly nerve gas and other chemical weapons stored in Utah and three other states — some of the agents so deadly even a few drops can kill.

Now, with all those chemicals up in smoke and communities freed of a threat, the Army is in the middle of another $1.3 billion project — demolishing the incinerators that destroyed the toxic materials.

Crews also are tearing apart multibillion-dollar incinerators in Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon.

Contributing: Associated Press

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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