A Burning Disposal Controversy the Army Is Relying on Incineration to Get Rid of Nine Stockpiles of Aging Chemical Weapons Series: THE TOXIC NORTHWEST. Part One of Three. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

Back when American doughboys were slogging through European trenches in the great war - facing the terror of mustard gas - United States policymakers decided to begin producing chemical weapons. If conflict ever again escalated to the use of poison, they reasoned, the US should be prepared to respond.

For the next 50 years (until 1968) the US built millions of bombs, rockets, landmines, spray tanks, and other ordnance designed to spew out deadly chemicals. But the munitions sat in bunkers through major military conflicts - no country wanted to be the first to initiate such horror when retaliation was assured. Then, a few years ago, nations began negotiating an end to chemical weapons stockpiling.

Now, the problem is how to get rid of such munitions - many of which are eroding - without risking the lives of people who live nearby. The Army wants to burn the chemicals, which it asserts can be safely done in high-tech incinerators.

"The technology has a proven track record," says Ronald Lamoreaux, senior civilian at the US Army's Umatilla Depot in northeast Oregon, which sits on a flat plain just south of the Columbia River.

But some scientists, government officials, environmentalists, and area residents warn that there's no guarantee poisons won't escape into the atmosphere. The gulf between the two sides underscores the complexity and sensitivity the government faces in disposing of unusual elements of the country's war machine of the past.

"We need a better look at the risks associated with it and also at the alternatives" to incineration, says Karyn Jones, who lives in Hermiston, five miles downwind from the Umatilla depot. She chairs a citizens' advisory commission appointed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The Umatilla depot is one of eight such sites around the country and a ninth is at Johnston Island, an atoll 700 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Over the years since Congress ordered disposal of all US chemical weapons in 1986, the price tag has escalated to more than $12 billion. The deadline for destruction also has been pushed back 10 years.

In January, Army officials declassified data on the US chemical stockpile, revealing that more than 30,000 tons of chemical agents remain to be disposed of. These include HD blistering agent (similar to mustard gas) and two types of nerve gas - GB and VX. GB also is known as Sarin, the substance a Japanese cult used in a deadly attack on the Tokyo subway system last year.

The chemical arsenal here at Umatilla is the third-largest in the country. It totals more than 7 million pounds of agents contained in 220,599 items. These include 155-millimeter and 8-inch projectiles, M-55 rockets, 500-pound and 750-pound bombs, landmines, spray tanks, and 170-gallon storage tanks.

Designed to store conventional explosive ordnance, the Umatilla depot was built just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Chemical weapons began arriving here in 1962. Today, 1,001 bunkers are spread across the depot's nearly 20,000 acres. These "igloos" - 80 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 22 feet high - are built of steel-reinforced concrete and covered with dirt. The bunkers inside the highly secure K-Block area hold the chemical weapons waiting for disposal.

"Our sole purpose in life now is to make sure they aren't leaking," says Donna Fuzi, depot spokeswoman. But despite the careful handling and sophisticated warning systems, there have been 104 "leakers" since 1984 - most M-55 rockets.

"The rockets have aluminum shells, and the GB {nerve agent} is corrosive so it's eating its way through," says Ms. Fuzi, who started work here as an enlisted security guard. In addition to the leaks, states an Army document, "there is some concern that the stabilizer in these weapons may degrade and cause a rocket to fire."

In a report released Friday, the Pentagon says rockets deemed unsafe will be disassembled; the chemical warheads will be separated from the rocket propellant section - a slow process the Army so far has considered to be unnecessary. …