Put those Weapons Down: An Update on the Chemical Arsenal at Blue...

Put those Weapons Down: An Update on the Chemical Arsenal at Blue Grass Army Depot

Ace May 1995

On March 14, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the Army for violating its federal hazardous waste permit at the Johnston Island chemical weapons incinerator. The facility, located about 700 nautical miles from Honolulu, Hawaii, was cited for a release of nerve agent on March 23, 1993 that exceeded allowable levels. It was also cited for improper storage of hazardous waste. This does not bode well for the Army’s request to extend operation beyond June 30 of 1995, when their permit for the incinerator on Johnston Island expires. The Army is seeking a “modification” of the current permit’s terms, so that the incinerator may remain active while their application for a new permit is processed.

“The fact is,” says Craig Williams of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, “that the Army knows there is plenty of opposition to the continued incineration of chemical weapons on Johnston Island, or anywhere else for that matter. The process for a new permit could take years. If they get this extension on the current permit, they could go on burning the stuff indefinitely.”

On January 3, the Army requested the permit modification which would delete the sentence, “The facility may not operate for more than five years once constructed.” (June 30, 1995 is the facility’s five-year anniversary.)

In response to the Army’s request for an extension, Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, addressed a letter to the E.P.A.  A letter from the Sierra Club followed. Greenlaw, an environmental protection organization based in Washington DC prepared and sent an 18-page document. The letters urged the E.P.A. to deny the Army’s request for an extension. Fitzgerald astutely noted that the granting of the modification would be procedurally defective and abusive to the public. He suggested that “the requested modification be resubmitted in a manner consistent with a request for a new permit.”

The process of getting a permit becomes a matter of public concern. The Sierra Club noted that in 1940, Johnston Atoll was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge to provide sanctuary for seabirds. The initial environmental impact statement for the Johnston Atoll incinerator stated that the facility would only be used for weapons already stored there, but in 1989, 100,000 U.S. chemical projectile weapons were shipped from Germany to Johnston Atoll for incineration. The Sierra Club urged that the permit remain unchanged so that everyone could evaluate the short- and longterm environmental and socio-economic impacts, as well as viable storage and disposal alternatives.”

Greenlaw detailed some of the technical problems — release of live agent, dioxins, and other products of incomplete combustion and the malfunctioning of monitoring systems. Might the facility be violating Federal Oceans Dumping regulations? Is the food chain being contaminated? Could a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, bring on a catastrophic release?

The Chemical Weapons Working Group, made up of concerned citizens from regions around the country sited for incinerators, just completed their fourth annual conference in Washington DC. “Our focus this year,” says Peter Hille of Berea, “was to figure out congressional strategy. We spent years trying to sway the Army’s decision, until it became obvious that the Army had already made their decision, prior to citizen input.” The group held a congressional briefing before leaving the capital, and Hille says that staffers representing Senators Ford and McConnell and Representatives Baesler, Lewis, and Ward were all present.

“What really gets their attention,” says Hille, “is when you start talking about the budget. The incinerator hasn’t worked the way it’s supposed to. There’s been problem after problem, and the cost has skyrocketed.” The Army’s projected cost of $1.7 billion in 1985 for the Johnston Atoll facility has risen to $11.3 billion, and the U.S. General Accounting Office has concluded that, as things stand now, costs could increase by as much as $348 million.

“We all absolutely agree that these weapons must be destroyed,” says Hille. “How to go about it is the question, in a timely way that’s in compliance with the international chemical weapons treaty that sets the year 2004 as a deadline for destroying chemical weapons.” In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, with input from researchers around the world, formulated a proposal for how to dispose of the chemical weapons: drain the munitions, neutralize the agents (which would convert them into hazardous waste) and then store it until a safe, final disposal technology is fully developed. “This would meet the requirements of the treaty,” Hille says, “and we would be storing something akin to Drano. It just doesn’t make sense to be burning this stuff into our atmosphere when closed-loop alternative technologies are in the works.”

Meanwhile, the Army continues with its program, claiming that incineration is safe enough, and that needed improvements to the process are being made. Whether these claims can hold up to a scientific examination remains to be seen.