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Mustard-filled weapons found in Utah desert

Published May 21, 2013 7:46 am

Environmental cleanup crews at former home of Deseret Chemical find 27 makeshift dumps.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some of the World War II-era munitions recovered in recent months from Deseret Chemical Depot landfills have been found to contain mustard, a liquid blistering agent.

The depot's Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, 20 miles south of Tooele, was shut down in January 2012 with the incineration of the last of a decades-old stockpile of chemical weapons.

But still remaining on the 19,000-acre property are 27 informal dumps, where weapons and debris were burned over the decades before environmental hazards were recognized. The Army began cleaning up these non-stockpiled weapons late last year, removing surface pollution and testing for underground pollution.

"These projects are part of our closure mission and showcase the Army's commitment to the environment," Col. Mark B. Pomeroy, depot commander, said Monday in a prepared statement.

The mustard-filled munitions —11 rusted, nonexplosive 4.2-inch mortar cartridges — were discovered in a landfill near the depot's southern edge, said spokeswoman Alaine Grieser. "We anticipate we'll find a few more."

The Army used a Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) system, sort of like an X-ray, to detect the hazardous contents. The cartridges were packed in airtight containers, and at a later date will be loaded in to a portable "Explosive Destruction System," cracked open and chemically neutralized, Grieser said.

The Army is about halfway through the landfill and has removed about 40,000 munitions discarded between 1945 and 1978.

"Back then, it wasn't uncommon to dig trenches and take the munitions and dump them in there and light them on fire with diesel," said Brad Maulding, hazardous-waste facilities manager at the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). "They didn't question the long-term environmental effects or whether burning was adequate."

The depot's environmental legacy isn't fully known, but Maulding said the decomposing weapons pose no direct threat to the community.

"No one could have stumbled across them," he said, noting the depot is surrounded by barbed-wire fences and patrolled by security officers.

To date, no munitions chemicals have been found in the groundwater, but some wells have tested positive for industrial pollutants from old plant operations, such as the solvent carbon tetrachloride, Maulding said.

Environmental groups say the landfills should remind future generations of how something dangerous is easily mishandled.

"We have to realize that Utah is a place where lots of materials like this gets brought," said Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah. "Whether it's nuclear waste or chemical weapons, we need to be constantly vigilant and skeptical when companies say, 'Don't worry about it. It's safe.' "

Cleanup at the depot is expected to continue through 2014.

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kirstendstewart