The Tooele County guidebook invites visitors to a world of spectacular vistas, a hideaway "Where Land and Sky Embrace."
It is a showcase for rugged snow-capped mountains, for panoramic desert landscapes, for ancient red-rock petroglyphs, for rolling meadows carpeted with wild-flowers. "Just about anywhere you look," it promises, "the view remains open, uninterrupted - endless."The guide does not mention that Tooele is home to America's largest and deadliest stockpile of chemical weapons, a volatile cache of nerve gas and blister agents stored in more than 1 million rockets, bombs and vats. It also overlooks the $650 million incinerator built here to destroy that arsenal, a glitch-plagued plant that whistle-blowers warn could meet the fate of Three Mile Island or the Challenger space shuttle.
No matter. Tooele may be Ground Zero in a raging national safety debate, but it is also the fastest-growing county in this fast-growing state, with building permits up 700 percent since 1995. Environmentalists warn of disaster, and the plant has shut down seven times for safety reasons, but nobody has been hurt yet, so residents seem not to mind having the lethal remains of the Cold War in their backyard.
"It's not an issue, and it shouldn't be," says Tooele Mayor Charlie Roberts. "Nobody around here even worries about it."
Outside the Tooele area, though, the confidence is not so absolute. There is national consensus that America must dispose of its chemical weapons to comply with international treaties. But there is disagreement over how to do it safely, and critics of incineration have made some progress in the political arena.
A series of scary incinerator mishaps here at the Deseret Chemical Depot has helped them. So have the numbers: The projected cost of destroying America's nine stockpiles has skyrocketed to $15.7 billion since 1985 from $1.7 billion.
So Congress has ordered the Army to find alternatives to incineration for its stockpiles in Maryland and Indiana. State legislators have also required studies of alternatives ranging from chemical neutralizers to agent-eating bacteria to molten metals at sites in Colorado and Kentucky. The Army is building incinerators in Alabama and Oregon, but both are tied up in litigation. A proposed incinerator in Arkansas may end up in court, too.
The nation's only working incinerators are at Johnston Atoll, an unpopulated island 800 miles off Hawaii, and the Tooele depot, just 40 miles outside Salt Lake City. Here in a sagebrush valley framed by jutting mountain ridges, amid deer and antelopes and signs warning that intruders may be shot, the ruthless poisons known as VX, GB, and mustard are stored in 208 earth-covered igloos, then obliterated in 2,700-degree furnaces.
But even though an Army analysis concluded that a freak accident here could kill 30,000 people, a recent poll found only 22 percent of Tooele County's residents were "very concerned" about the threat. Even though the plant's former general manager, safety manager and hazardous waste manager have called it a grave danger to public health, the anti-incinerator Sierra Club has attracted only 15 members in this county.
Meanwhile, attracted by the natural beauty, the wide-open spaces, and the easy commute to Salt Lake, new families are expressing their faith in Tooele County with moving vans, streaming into new subdivisions like Overland Estates and Copper Canyon. The county's population is expected to double by 2020.
"People here are brainwashed," complained Cindy King, the Sierra Club's chemical weapons liaison in Utah. "They're told everything is fine, so they believe it. It's very frustrating."
At the depot, which provides 650 jobs in the area, officials insist that everything is fine, much better than fine. They are making history here, beating swords not into plowshares,but into nothing at all. They are part of an unprecedented world-wide effort to eliminate an entire class of deadly weapons - never used by Americans in battle - and they are proud of it.
"We've got an important job to do here, and safety is our number-one priority," said Jon Pettebone, the depot's chief public affairs officer. "We hear all this doom and gloom, but your chances of winning the Publishers Clearing House two years in a row are better than the chances of a disaster here."
After more than a year of operation, the depot has never had a confirmed "agent release," Army jargon for a detectable amount of poison gas (17 parts in a trillion) escaping from the plant. It has never had a worker injured on the job. The Army distributes piles of literature defending incineration, including a Centers for Disease Control study, and spends millions of dollars on emergency preparedness. The Emergency Operations Center here is staffed 24 hours a day, charting every shift in the wind, monitoring every corner of the 19,000-acre depot.
Still, the main argument for incineration is that it is safer than doing nothing. In a half-century of storing munitions, the depot has detected over 4,000 corroded "leakers" in its igloos, most of them M-55 rockets filled with sarin, the lethal gas used in the Japan subway attack. Officials say vapor has never escaped the igloos, but they warn that as the stockpile ages, leakers will become more frequent and could "auto-ignite." An earthquake around here could be catastrophic.
"I'm telling you, it's more dangerous to store this stuff for one day than it is to burn it for seven years," said Mark Merboth, chemical operations director for EG&G, the Wellesley-based contractor that runs the plant. "It's nasty stuff."
The depot has now destroyed about one-10th of its original batch of over 13,600 tons of munitions, which was almost half of America's stockpile. But critics are still fighting in court to shut down the incinerator, and even EG&G officials acknowledge that the plant has had problems, especially now that state inspectors have cited it for 25 procedural violations.
"Most everybody is aware there have been ups and downs," EG&G general manager Henry Silvestri began a recent newsletter for depot employees. "We had problems with procedure, equipment, management systems, and software. There were issues with the start-ups of every munition line . . ."
In fact, two days after the incinerator went on line, it had to shut down after nerve gas leaked into a work space. Three weeks later, work stopped again after employees saw liquid dripping through cracks in a ceiling. A month after that, a bomb squad had to crawl into a 2-foot-thick furnace to remove explosive scraps of an M-55 rocket jammed in the feed chute.
The officials say they have learned from their mistakes. But three former high-ranking EG&G employees - Gary Millar, Steve Jones, and Trina Allen - continue to insist that the plant is a public menace. All three say they were fired for voicing their concerns, and all three have won lawsuits against the company.
"There are still so many flaws in the system," said Allen, who still lives in Tooele. "But the attitude of the people around here is so lackadaisical, it's just scary."
All visitors to the depot must watch a video showing the hideous effects of mustard gas (a kind of chemical leprosy) and nerve agents (a drop can be lethal). They must learn how to self-inject with antidote in case of exposure, and they must pass a breathing test in a gas mask. They also must shave their beards; they could cause problems with their masks.
Otherwise, the plant looks like any other automated industrial operation, except for the moonscape of igloos crammed with casks of gray nerve-gas projectiles. There is a NASA-style control room brim-ming with computers, closed-circuit TV monitors, and thousands of blinking lights. There are four blast-proof furnaces with walls 2-feet thick. There are high-tech conveyor belts, monitoring systems, and a "punch-and-drain" machine that sucks nerve agent out of rockets. Everything looks clean.
"It isn't scary at all. It's exciting," said Judy Moore, a supervisor in the control room. "I re-member hiding under my desk during those air-raid sirens when I was a kid. Now the world has changed, and we're a big part of that change."
The depot's brochures assert that the odds of someone around here dying from an agent release are 1 in 10 million, or one-10th of the risk of drowning in the tub. But mistakes have been made around here before. In 1968, a botched chemical-weapons test in the area killed 6,400 sheep. Tooele County was also home to some of the "downwinders" exposed to radiation by nuclear tests in Nevada during the 1950s.
But if families around here are nervous, they are keeping it to themselves. Some critics attribute this to local traditions of deference to authority. Others say local residents are simply accustomed to bad neighbors - Tooele County is also home to four hazardous waste dumps, the nation's worst industrial chlorine polluter, and five other incinerators in addition to the depot.
"People don't like to think about things that can kill them 20 years down the road," said Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group that is leading the national fight against incinerators. "They see those beautiful views, and they just stick their heads in the sand."
As the Tooele County guidebook made clear, those majestic views of wide-open spaces were always the main attraction to this area. But now some of those wide-open spaces are getting less open, and the sparse population is getting less sparse. There are 7,000 homes under construction in Tooele, plus a six-plex theater, a strip mall and a 60-room hotel. It is quickly becoming a bedroom community of Salt Lake commuters, and to many longtime residents, that is the real horror.
"The plant is safe, no question about that," said Kari Sagers, the county's emergency management director. "But I tell people we should put up a big billboard that says: `Danger! Poison! Keep Out!' We're losing our rural atmosphere."