Burning controversy over weapons disposal

Arkansas is latest hot spot in fight over how to rid US of chemicalarms.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Joe Steward lives half a mile from 12 percent of the nation's chemical-weapons stockpile. He keeps an emergency-alert radio, which will warn residents in the event of an accident at the Army's Pine Bluff Arsenal, on his table.

Mr. Steward and the 70,000 residents of Pine Bluff, Ark., have lived in the shadow of this chemical-weapons depot for decades. But now, as the Army prepares to destroy these lethal weapons in accordance with an international arms-reduction treaty, many here believe they are facing a new threat - an incinerator.

"There is an ever-present danger, but especially if you burn this stuff," says Steward, who used to work at the arsenal 10 miles north of town. "I don't know what day you'd skip to say you were safe. The only day would be the one when you go out of town."

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As opponents maneuver in the courts to block the burning of this chemical-weapons stockpile, the dispute is raising anew questions over how to rid America of munitions from the cold-war past. From Oregon to Arkansas, incineration has provoked controversy, but the Army insists simply storing the never-used chemical weapons is no longer an option - both because of treaty requirements and the increasing threat of leaks.

For now, though, construction of the Pine Bluff incinerator is going forward. While a coalition of opponents last month succeeded in temporarily halting the building via the courts, a state agency has since lifted the injunction.

"We aren't opposed to this material being disposed of," says Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Berea, Ky., a coalition of activists in the US, Pacific islands, and Russia. "We just want to ensure that [it] is disposed of in a timely, cost-effective way that is safe to the environment and humans."

More than 60 groups, including the Sierra Club, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and several labor unions, want to postpone chemical-weapon burning in Arkansas until alternatives being tested by the Army show their worth. They say the incinerator design is flawed, modeled after a problematic unit that operated on Johnston Atoll, an island about 800 miles southwest of Hawaii. The same design flaw was incorporated into the only chemical-weapon incinerator now operating on the mainland, in Tooele, Utah, they assert.

US officials say such disposal will meet all state and federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act. They note that no more than 0.0001 percent of the chemical agents can leave the incinerator stack - a standard the federal National Center for Environmental Health says is "well below levels considered safe for the community.

Construction contracts have been awarded and environmental permits have been issued for incinerators at the Army's Umatilla depot in Hermiston, Ore., and another one in Anniston, Ala. At other chemical-weapon stockpile sites - in Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, and Indiana - the Army will use alternative methods of disposal, such as neutralization.

Once a booming railroad town, Pine Bluff has seen better days. Main Street is a shell of a once-thriving downtown, and revitalization efforts remain stalled. Crime continues to rise, as does unemployment.

Over its history, the nearby arsenal has been both blessing and curse for this city. Construction of the Pine Bluff Arsenal began in November 1941, just weeks before the United States entered World War II. Seven months later, it produced its first conventional munitions. Then, in the 1960s during the cold war, the United States increased production of chemical weapons, and the arsenal became a warehouse for them.

THE depot houses two types of nerve gas - GB and VX. GB is also known as sarin, the gas that killed 12 and injured 5,500 in a 1995 Tokyo subway attack by a religious cult. Two varieties of mustard gas, H and HD, are also at the arsenal.

The manufacture of chemical weapons in the US was banned in 1969. Congress in 1985 directed the Army, which keeps the weapons, to destroy them. A 2007 deadline for destruction is set by international treaty.

Incinerator supporters say that burning the chemicals is better than allowing these munitions to sit in concrete bunkers that sometimes leak.

"We will use the best technology, the safest and most environmentally friendly," says Boyce Ross, the Army's incinerator manager at Pine Bluff. "But the most important thing of all is safety to the public. If it's the safest technology, why wouldn't we use it? And we believe this is the safest."

But opponents cite a warning by Anthony Flippo, former weapons branch chief for the test conduct division at the Army's Dugwat Proving Ground near Tooele, Utah. He said in an affidavit that he warned Army officials in 1994, after inspecting the Pine Bluff Arsenal, that an unknown number of munitions were inadequately identified and improperly stored there. Until these weapons were properly stored, incineration would be a hazard, Mr. Flippo said.

Such reports spur opponents to continue their fight.

"We just want state-of-the-art disposal of these chemicals," says Mr. Williams, who adds that alternative methods could be revealed as early as April. "Burning isn't the answer. Once the burning starts, it is going out of the smokestack and cannot be controlled. That's where the real unknown danger lies."

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