ON a tiny patch of coral rubble 730 miles southwest of Hawaii, the world's first large-scale chemical weapons incinerator is being built. In six months, the $240 million furnace on Johnston Atoll is slated to start destroying thousands of tons of poison gas-filled bombs and rockets stored there. But a report released in August by Greenpeace International claims that the facility is likely to produce highly toxic emissions and is seriously deficient in health and safety standards.
``The Army's trading one horrific problem - disposal of leaking chemical weapons - for another horrific problem - disposal of toxic wastes,'' Sebia Hawkins of Greenpeace's Washington office says.
If correct, the exhaustively researched report has wide-reaching implications.
There are eight other stockpiles of aging chemical weapons in the United States where incinerators are scheduled to be built, using the Johnston Atoll facility as a model. Congress has mandated the weapons must destroyed by 1997. Already, local opposition is fermenting in three locations.
Internationally, problems at Johnston Atoll could prove embarrassing to the US and could delay implementation of a multilateral chemical weapons treaty. At a chemical weapons conference in Australia last week, the US touted its progress in ``environmentally safe destruction of chemical weapons.''
As indicated by the chemical weapons verification pact reached last weekend in Wyoming by Secretary of State James Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, momentum for a global ban is building. Diplomats say a treaty requiring the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles could be completed next year.
But of the 22 nations suspected of having these weapons, only the US and Soviet Union have admitted it. And both are running into environmental opposition to their disposal plans.
Earlier this month, the Soviet government halted construction of its only destruction facility at Chapayevsk on the Volga River. The Soviet news agency Tass credited a year of protests by the region's residents for stopping the ``dangerous enterprise.''
Four furnaces at Johnston Atoll will be burning ``Agent Orange'' herbicide, mustard gas, and the decontamination fluids used to neutralize nerve and blister gases. The various contaminated metal bomb casings, shells, mines, and plastic packaging materials will also be burned.
The Greenpeace report contends Army environmental studies have failed to take into account ``vast'' recent scientific evidence of the creation of toxins in similar high-temperature incinerators.
A high proportion of these toxic byproducts are likely to be absorbed by the smokestack ``scrubbers'' or filters. But then, the scrubber brine - a solution which captures the toxins - must be disposed of. Originally, the Army planned to dump it in the Pacific. Now, the Army plans to evaporate the liquid and pack the dry toxic residue in drums to be shipped to landfills in the US.
Still, there's the potential in the burning and drying processes for toxins to escape into the atmosphere and settle on the ocean. Even small amounts can be absorbed and concentrate in the food chain, according to a range of research cited. The Army's final environmental study is said to offer an ``arbitrary'' and incomplete response to concerns of the Federation of Micronesia about contamination of migratory fish, such as tuna. It also doesn't consider the expansion of US tuna fishing fleets into the area, according to Greenpeace.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires a full review of all new scientific data and non-arbitrary responses.
Greenpeace consultants admit it's possible the incinerator may not release dangerous levels of toxic byproducts. ``Until the Army tests the stack gases, tests the [scrubber] brines we don't know. But the point is, neither does the Army,'' says the report's lead consultant, Alfred Picardi of Environmental Science and Assessment Services in Washington.
The report raises questions about transportation of US chemical weapon stockpiles to Johnston Atoll. Questions about protecting incinerator operators and about accident procedures are also raised.
The report ``throws everything but the kitchen sink at the Army to get it to respond,'' comments Matthew Meselsen, a Harvard University biochemist and chemical weapons expert.
In a prepared statement, Army spokesman Maj. Joe Padilla replies: ``Johnston Atoll operations will be in accordance with all federal environmental regulations. Trial burns for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the demonstration burn for the Toxic Substance Control Act will be conducted in accordance with all the applicable permits both currently in force and in application. The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] will receive these data and ensure compliance with regulations.''
He adds, ``It won't be the Army that decides this is safe. It will be the EPA.''
Environmentalists find little comfort in this assurance. ``The EPA has no national standards for incinerator dioxin emissions. The EPA has no national standards for heavy metal emissions either,'' says Pat Costner, research director for the Greenpeace US toxics campaign.
But isn't it better to have drums of toxic waste than old chemical weapons sitting around leaking lethal gas? ``It doesn't have to be a choice between greater and lesser evils. There are alternative solutions,'' says Ms. Costner. Greenpeace contends the Army is relying on 10-year-old technology. ``There's promising technology being developed which doesn't result in toxic emissions,'' says Paul Johnston, a toxicologist doing Greenpeace-sponsored research.
Ms. Hawkins commends the Army's willingness to discuss the report. Talks between Greenpeace and Army scientists are set for next month. In the meantime, the Greenpeace report recommends monitored storage of the chemical weapons on Johnston Atoll.