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Utahns relieved destruction of chemical weapons is complete

Military » Former critic says, “They contributed to peace.”

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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.

At a glance

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.

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"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."

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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."


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