TOOELE — A demolition crew has begun tearing down the U.S. Army's chemical weapons incinerator complex in Utah.
The plant has finished the job it was built for two decades ago: destroying almost half the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons, mostly rockets and artillery shells loaded with deadly mustard and nerve agents.
In Tooele County, there are mixed feelings — regret that more than 1,000 jobs have disappeared at the Deseret Chemical Depot and relief that the nasty chemicals are gone for good.
The first building to bite the dust Thursday was the office used by treaty inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The inspectors came to Utah over the years to keep an eye on the Army's huge incinerator complex.
"(They) had remote monitors to view the operations that took place and verified that we destroyed the weapons that were stored here,” said Gary McCloskey, general manager of URS, the company contracted by the Army to operate the incinerator complex.
Between 1996 and 2013, the incinerator burned more than 1 million bombs, rockets and other munitions, loaded with 13,000 tons of deadly blister and nerve agents. Under an international treaty, civilized nations agreed to get rid of it all.
"Chemical weapons were something the world could have easily done without,” McCloskey said.
According to the Army, the site has now been cleaned of all dangerous chemicals. Some civilian businesses may be allowed to use a few remaining structures, but the Army itself will likely use the infamous igloos that stored the chemical weapons. Many of the munitions developed dangerous leaks as they aged into the 21st century.
"The Army will use the igloos that were left over and cleaned and turned back over to Tooele Army Depot primarily to store conventional ammunition,” said Donald Campbell, U.S. Army site project manager.
In the past year, Army and civilian employment at the incinerator complex dropped from roughly 1,500 jobs to about 230.
Surprisingly, Tooele County seems to have absorbed some of those job losses. Total employment in the county held fairly steady, declining only slightly from 15,608 in November 2012 to an estimated 15,360 a year later.
Still, losing more than 1,000 well-paid jobs at the incinerator was a blow to the economy.
"It is significant,” Tooele County Commission Chairman J. Bruce Clegg said. “We're all in the same community. We're all related. We're all friends. And it is significant to our community to have that done. But on the other hand, we had the world's largest supply of the nastiest stuff on Earth, and now it's gone."
It will take up to nine months to finish the demolition. Then the remaining 230 jobs will vanish. Quite a few of those who lost their jobs transferred to other states where smaller stockpiles of chemical weapons still need to be destroyed.
County officials at one time had hoped to extend the life of the incinerator and keep its jobs alive by importing more chemical weapons.
"We wanted to bring other waste from other facilities in other states here because we were set up to handle it safely," Clegg said.
The stockpiles in such states as Kentucky and Colorado are still awaiting destruction. But the international treaty forbids interstate transfers, according to Clegg.
Clegg is not shy about importing waste from other states if it improves Tooele County's job base. He supports EnergySolutions' effort to win approval to handle another controversial waste product, depleted uranium, at the company's radioactive waste landfill near Clive.
"We've proven that we can handle the worst chemicals on Earth and do it safely," he said, "and we've got a workforce that is completely capable of handling it."
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