The manager of the Army's chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele County takes sharp issue with protesters who said Monday the plant should be closed.

Tim Thomas, a civilian employed by the Army to run the $600 million facility, was responding to comments made at a press conference by incinerator opponents in Washington, D.C. The umbrella organization called Chem-i-cal Weapons Working Group said myriad problems plagued the incinerator and it should close while alternative technologies are developed.Thomas pointed out that since the facility began its work on Aug. 22, 1996, it has destroyed 3 million pounds of GB nerve agent. The material, also called sarin, is the same deadly agent that killed 12 and sickened thousands when terrorists sprayed it in a Tokyo subway three years ago.

Still remaining to be destroyed at Deseret Chemical Depot is a stockpile of more than 12,000 tons of GB and VX nerve agent, mustard gas and Lewisite. These amount to more than 1 million munitions containing chemical warfare agents, including rockets, bombs, projectiles, mortars, land mines, aerial spray tanks and ton containers.

Official analyses say that earthquakes and other disasters are so dangerous to the stockpile that storing the material even a few days is more hazardous than the incinerator's projected eight years of operation.

The 3 million pounds already burned "comes out of that portion of the stockpile that presents the greatest risk to the community," said Thomas. "So I think we've made significant strides to meeting our commitment to protect the community and to protect the environment."

He said the plant had "some opportunities for success; we've had some bumps that we've had to overcome." At any indication of a problem, the plant suspends operations and corrects the difficulty.

Some critics see that as a problem, but he believes it is the most appropriate approach to safety, Thomas said.

"We've had no (chemical) releases to the environment and we've had only two lost-time accidents." One happened when an employee's back was hurt by a slip on icy ground and the second when another person tripped on a rock and aggravated a previous injury.

"This facility has been very safe and very protective of the people in the area, as we destroy the stockpile." Thomas added that the presence of the stockpile itself at Deseret Chemical Depot "is a continuing risk to the population."