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The new $212 million chemical-destruction facility being built at the Tooele Army Depot will make headlines around the world, an Army official promised at groundbreaking ceremonies Monday.

Michael W. Owen, the acting assistant secretary of the Army, termed the Utah facility, the first chemical-destruction plant to be built in the continental United States, the "most modern, carefully conceived" disposal facility in the world.The Tooele facility is one of eight storage sites within the continental United States where chemical incineration is planned to take place. In 1985, Congress directed that the country's stockpile of premixed, lethal agents be destroyed. Not only are the weapons obsolete, some more than 40 years old, but they pose public safety risks through deterioration.

"This is history, ladies and gentlemen," Owen said.

"We will never compromise safety, even at the expense of schedules and cost," said Owen, who promised the Army is building the facility with maximum safeguards of both nearby residents and the environment. "This plant here at Tooele will be operated with total safety or it won't be operated at all."

Between 1983 and 1987, eight accidents at Tooele's south area have allowed deadly nerve gas to escape, according to documents the Deseret News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Only two of those accidents received any significant publicity and local agencies were not immediately notified. Yet documents show up to 73 times the legal hourly limit of nerve agent escaped. Army officials said the accidental releases were small and posed no threat to people off the remote base area.

The eight-building facility, planned for completion in 1991, will dispose of the 42.3 percent of the U.S. stock of mustard and nerve agents that are stored in a classified number of dirt-covered igloos at Tooele.

The Tooele facility is being patterned after the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System, located about 700 miles southwest of the Hawaiian islands, now undergoing start-up tests. In turn, the Johnston facility was constructed based on a decade-old experimental testing facility at TAD, called the Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System. Delays have continued to push back the opening of Johnston, where live chemical tests won't begin until March 1990. The Pacific facility was planned to resolve problems before the arms-destruction plants were built, but now won't be operational until after the other plants have been designed.

Army officials said last year that 784 chemical arms at Tooele are leaking. Most of the outdated weapons - which officials contend pose little threat to workers or residents because they are enclosed in isolated areas and monitored regularly - are old M55 rockets, which couldn't be used in warfare anyway, as the military now lacks any firing device.

Monday's groundbreaking was one month after President Bush, in a speech at the United Nations, underscored his commitment to ridding the world of chemical weapons and challenged other nations to follow his lead.

Owen, Ambassador Ronald F. Lehman II, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, took shovels to a mound of dirt brought in for the ceremonies. The 27-acre facility will be built at the depot's south area, about 15 miles across a sagebrush-dotted desert from TAD's main entrance. The closest residences to the facility include about 40 people who live up Ophir Canyon, across from the south area's entrance, and the small town of Faust, about 10 miles to the south.

"No one should ever underestimate the importance of what you do here. You are at the leading edge of our efforts," said Lehman, Bush's chief arms negotiator.

More than 20 nations have the capacity to deploy chemical warfare, which he said has been used too often in recent battles, citing Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Iran-Iraq war.

About 200 people attended the short ceremony, punctuated with the military fanfare of patriotic songs. Hansen, standing on a temporary, bunting-draped platform, read a prepared statement from Bush.

"The chemical weapons destruction facility to be built at Tooele says to all the world that the United States is determined to fulfill its promises, that our people and our government are committed to halting the spread of chemical weapons and eliminating their very existence."

Hansen warned depot workers and dignitaries to be prepared for an onslaught of protesters, whom he dismissed as "a few folks with sandwich boards." But he said the facility represents a sensible, reasonable approach to arms control and is a giant step forward for America and the free world.

Hansen also said nearby residents should feel protected, despite the possibility of an accident. He said the decision to destroy the chemical weapons at their storage sites is more reasonable than transporting them for destruction elsewhere. "This is what you've wanted. This is what you've prayed for."

The congressman said he gets between 10 and 20 letters a week from people who say nothing should be done to the stockpile housed at TAD. No matter what action is taken, some of his constituents are worried about the consequences of a chemical accident.

"If it leaked, you would (die)," he said. "But it's so well taken care of here, I'm not worried about it."

He said the testing conducted at TAD has served as the technical prototype for chemical destruction, and makes it difficult to imagine that anything could go wrong. And the redundancies of protection built into the system, in his estimation, makes the chance of a fatal accident "infinitesimal."