NONE of us would choose to have chemical weapons incinerated in our neighborhood, and it's not surprising that residents living near some of the US Army's chemical-weapons production facilities are alarmed about plans to destroy those weapons in place. But their concerns appear to be overblown. The disposal techniques adopted by the Army entail few if any demonstrated hazards. Alternative procedures either bear their own considerable risks or would delay the destruction for years. Under a treaty with the Soviet Union, the US is obligated to destroy 80 percent of its chemical-weapons stocks by 2002. Congress tightened the deadline, however, requiring disposal of the weapons within this decade. After exhaustive study by the government and private scientists, the Army settled on incineration in place as the safest and most efficient disposal method, and one that carries minimal risks to the environment.
America's chemical-weapons agents - held in bulk containers or mounted into missile warheads, artillery shells, and mines - reside at eight Army plants in the US and at a facility on Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific. Some of the weapons are decades old, and containers are corroding. Moving them to one or two central disposal sites over deteriorating US roads and rails would be risky. Thus the Army's preference for burning the agents and containers where they sit.
Knowledgeable scientists give the Army high marks for the thoroughness of its technological research and its environmental-impact studies. These scientists also report that the incinerator on Johnston Atoll - the furthest advanced of the planned disposal facilities - has satisfactorily met its testing benchmarks. Small glitches, expected in any new technology, have been corrected.
Besides the destruction of its own chemical weapons, the US faces the challenge of destroying Saddam Hussein's chemical arsenal.
The best course is to stick with a far-down-the-road plan using a relatively mature disposal technology, rather than send the Army back to the drawing boards on the basis of understandable, but nonetheless unsubstantiated speculations by the weapons plants' neighbors and some environmentalists.