It's business as usual for the Army's $600 million chemical weapons incinerator, located 20 miles south of Tooele, but that's not entirely hopeful.
It means that, as usual, the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility is continuing to burn up the country's biggest stockpile of nerve and mustard agent.It means that after two years, it still doesn't have permission to operate at capacity. It also means critics are keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism against the idea of destroying the toxic arms by incineration.
And it means that the project keeps developing unexpected glitches.
The latest is that this week the state's Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board ordered that a trial burn of M55 rockets, first conducted in January 1997, must be run again.
"An equipment problem may have interfered with the ability to accurately measure the amount of chemical agent drained from the rockets," plant spokesman Craig Campbell explained.
On Tuesday, Dennis Downs, executive director of the control board, wrote a letter to the Army saying the equipment problem may have affected the quality of the data needed to adequately assess health risks.
The rockets are 155 mm in diameter and make up a relatively small part of the weapons stockpile. Of 16,616 tons of chemical ordnance there, the rockets carry a total of 154.86 tons of deadly GB nerve agent, a.k.a. sarin.
Deseret Chemical Depot, the base that includes the incinerator and weapons storage igloos, originally housed 28,945 rockets, each loaded with 10.7 pounds of GB. Between startup and March 1997, the incinerator destroyed 11,592 of the M55 rockets. The depot also is home to 3,966 M-55 rockets carrying VX nerve agent.
So far, only GB has been burned at the plant, with almost 1,900 tons destroyed. That is about 30 percent of the GB on the base and 13.9 percent of the total chemicals in the Tooele stockpile.
The Environmental Protection Agency also has a hold on the plant's resuming burning M55 missiles because PCBs showed up. The PCBs - suspected cancer-causing chemicals - came from the gasket material within the pollution-abatement system itself, Campbell said.
"Corrective measures have been taken," he said.
Nearly two years after startup, critics still aren't impressed with the plant.
"We feel that the facility has been improperly permitted, that it's operating outside the regulatory requirements, that it is emitting nerve agent along with other toxic materials that pose a threat," said Craig Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Brea, Ky.
The group has fought the plant through state regulatory processes, in state court and in federal court, losing every round. However, Williams said, no court has ever ruled on the substance of the safety allegations.
Williams said that when trial is held on the actual substance of the group's complaints, the burden of proof will not be as high for the critics as it was in the preliminary injunction stage. A federal trial may start in September.
Incinerator opponents want to see the chemical weapons destroyed, he said. But "the technology that's being deployed and the way it's being operated are not protective," Williams said.
Steve Jones, the former plant manager who was fired after he called attention to what he perceives as unsafe conditions, told the Deseret News Friday, "This is a very dangerous operation."
The deactivation furnace system, which burns the rockets, hasn't worked because of mechanical problems, he said. Arsenic has gone into the atmosphere because of some of the plant's operations, and the big brine dryer does not work, said Jones, who was reached by telephone in Little Rock, Ark.
Instead of drying contaminated water on site, Jones said, it is being packed off to Texas in rail cars. It is to be disposed of there.
"They're not working. They're limping. They're almost at a dead stop right now," Jones said, speaking of the incinerator.
But David Jackson, the incinerator's assistant project manager, doesn't place much stock in those criticisms.
"The deactivation furnace went through a trial burn," he said. "The furnace, in my opinion, works well."
The test will be repeated because of questions about data sampling, but the furnace performed better than the stringent requirements imposed on it. Federal agencies require "four nines' destruction," which is the destruction of 99.99 percent of the material. Instead, he said, it actually performed at five or six nines.
The same type of furnace worked well for the past 20 years, at another incinerator in Tooele County and at the prototype plant on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.
What about the brine dryer? "The whole thing works," he said. The water is sent out of state for disposal because "it's more economical to ship," he said. "The dryer's a very labor-intensive operation."
He also isn't concerned about arsenic. "We have seen low levels of arsenic in GB from day one."
In his opinion, the arsenic may have been mixed with the phosphorus in GB, from the time when the phosphorus was mined. The element is akin to phosphorus, he said.
According to Jackson, the levels of arsenic aren't anything to worry about. The state risk assessment says it is under control and below limits, he said.
"This whole valley is arsenic-contaminated, naturally," Jackson added. "Gold Hill (a mining region in Tooele County) is not a gold mine. It's an arsenic mine . . . Arsenic in a mining area's not unusual."
However, Jones says arsenic was released when the plant inadvertently burned Lewisite. The chemical is a mixture of arsenic and mustard agent, and 10 of the ton containers at the depot are known to be filled with Lewisite.
Because arsenic is an element, and so does not break down during incineration, the Lewisite in those ton containers will not be burned. It and some of the other arms will be chemically cleansed at the nearby Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System, located in the South Area of Tooele Army Depot.
Downs, who is also director of the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, said he believes that the incinerator is close to approval to begin working at full capacity.
Asked if it was a serious problem that prompted the call for another test burn, he replied, "No, it's just that we try and go over those things in minute detail . . . There wasn't any huge oversight or anything."
In general, how is the incinerator doing?
"It seems to be going well out there," Downs said. He noted that state inspectors remain at the plant, making sure everything runs right, and it seems to have settled into a steady operation.
Nerve agent disposal
Tooele Army Depot
Totals in tons A G E N T
... GB Others*
Original stockpiled 547.53 820.62
Destroyed 62.02 0
Original stockpiled 5,497.73 6,750.12
Destroyed 1,837.72 0
Total destroyed 1,899.74
GB: a sarin nerve agent
*Others includes mustard agents, tabun (nerve agent), VX (nerve agent in the organophosphorous coumpound family)