A veteran of the Korean War and three terms in the Utah House, David Ostler is relieved that the longest campaign of his life — the destruction of nasty chemical weapons stored in Utah’s desert for decades — is over.
Workers at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Deseret Chemical Depot, 20 miles south of Tooele, finished incinerating the last of the depot’s lewisite, a blister agent, at 4:29 a.m. Saturday.
“It’s good to have that behind us,” says Ostler, who with hundreds of other Utahns played a behind-the-scenes role in the Army’s $3.3 billion campaign to obliterate 44 percent of the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which it had stored at the depot beginning in 1945.
Ostler for two decades was a member of the Utah Citizens Advisory Commission, which met six to 12 times a year to monitor the plant’s safety and environmental precautions.
Like the 1,400 employees who were celebrating their achievement last week, Ostler was marveling over the plant’s safety record. That no one ever died while destroying 1.1 million munitions and 13,617 tons of chemical agent is nothing short of amazing, Ostler says.
Indeed, the plant has operated for more than 13.5 million worker-hours without a lost workday injury, an achievement that the Army’s site manager, Ted Ryba, likens to the rate librarians are injured.
“That’s just unbeatable,” says Ryba.
The only worker ever exposed to nerve agent was back at work the next day, albeit in a non-toxic area of the plant, Ryba says.
Moreover, the environmental impact was minimal, says Tom Ball, the Department of Environmental Quality engineer who has been monitoring the plant since it began destroying chemical weapons in August 1996.
“There has been no contamination from the facility,” Ball says. “Overall, we think they’ve done a great job.”
No contamination does not mean no environmental impact; it means the emissions of mercury, dioxins and other metals and chemicals out of the four incinerators’ shared stack were within the levels permitted by the DEQ.
However, Ryba says emissions were consistently below what the stack monitors could record, with pollution controls removing at least 99.9999 percent of the bad byproducts or heavy metals produced by incineration.
In the five-plus years the mustard gas destruction produced mercury, just 10 to 20 pounds total were emitted, which is far below what other Utah industries put into the air, Ryba says.
Soil and vegetation tests over the years, taken on the depot and on Bureau of Land Management and private lands in the area, showed no contamination, Ball says.
Even one of the plant’s longtime watchdogs, environmentalist Steve Erickson, was full of praise. The plant never emitted chemical agents, as far as he knows, and the pollutants, Erickson says, should not be a source of worry for Utahns.
“I say, ‘Congratulations on a job well done’ to all those people who made demilitarization a safe and successful operation,” Erickson says. “They contributed to peace.”
Such praise belies the conflict, including lawsuits and interventions via Congress, that marked much of the Army’s campaign of more than 25 years to destroy the weapons.
Environmentalists were angered in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Army would not consider an alternate technology to incineration, which they claimed was unsafe and polluting.
The Army started by incinerating chemical weapons on Johnson Atoll in the Pacific, and began testing its new Utah incinerator in 1993.
The biggest critic of the Army’s effort, Craig Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Kentucky, says Utah’s successful completion is “thrilling” from a disarmament perspective. But he still contends the Army blew it by choosing incineration for its Utah stockpile; the permitted pollution levels are too high, to his thinking.
Under pressure by community activists, the Army chose an alternate technology involving water for four smaller stockpiles. Two are now destroyed, but the plants in Colorado and Kentucky are still under construction and won’t be finished destroying weapons before 2021.
Both Williams and Erickson contend that environmentalists’ intervention helped the Army and its contractor — URS Corp. — operate the Utah plant more safely.
“Those of us who were critical played a watchdog role that kept everybody on their toes,” Erickson says.
Ryba, who has been at the Utah plant since it fired up in 1996, says, “Every government project needs somebody external as a watchdog and a conscience.”
But, he says of the critics, “Their position was we should shut down incineration. That didn’t make it safer or better.”
Debbie Kim, a Salt Lake City nurse and chairwoman of the citizens commission for more than a decade, says that Utah hospitals, health care providers and the emergency response system share one of the enduring legacies of the effort to rid Utah of chemical weapons.
The state’s Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program brought in more than $65 million that was spread among counties and hospitals to train and equip personnel to handle any disasters stemming from the plant.
“It’s more than our community was aware of,” she says.
Kim says her years on the commission that monitored the plant for Utah residents have profoundly affected her life. “We were the silent eyes and ears of what was going on.”
The depot plans an April 26 celebration for employees and community leaders. The commission will have its final, ceremonial meeting that day, Kim says.
“I will declare it decommissioned, and that will be that.”
Depot workers will be phased out; non-stockpiled weapons remain
The 1,400 workers at Deseret Chemical Depot — an estimated 1,100 working for contractors and the rest for the U.S. Army — will lose their jobs in phases as the demilitarization facility is shut down and demolished. Command of the depot will be turned back over to Tooele Army Depot in mid-2013, and only a handful of employees will remain by 2014.
Destruction of the nation’s chemical weapons stockpile is mandated by an international treaty among 188 nations. The Utah depot, which had by far the largest stockpile, met the April 29 deadline, but two other plants are still under construction, so the United States will be in violation of the treaty.
Still remaining at the depot are informal dumps where weapons and debris were burned over the decades before the environmental hazards were recognized. Those non-stockpiled weapons were not declared under the treaty. The Army plans to begin cleaning up the surface pollution at two sites this spring, and will investigate for any underground pollution.