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A new report says destroying aging chemical arms at Tooele Army Depot can be done safely - but a remote chance exists that a serious accident could also result.

The report says that a worst-case scenario could kill more than 2,000 people and spread nerve gas to the Salt Lake and Provo areas.But the Army says even worse accidents are possible if it continues to store and not destroy the old arms - 784 which are leaking. In fact, it says storage accidents that could kill 30,000 people and spread deadly nerve gas clouds as far away as Ogden and Nephi are possible.

Reporters in recent years had unsuccessfully asked the Army to speculate about how serious potential accidents at Tooele could be. The answer can finally be found in a new draft environmental impact statement for construction of a new facility to destroy chemical arms.

Tooele stores 42 percent of the nation's aging chemical arms, which Congress wants destroyed by 1997.

The depot's south area - in Rush Valley about 35 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and 38 miles west of Provo - was home to a pilot plant that developed the technology to destroy those arms by incinerating the chemicals and contaminated arms parts.

The Army is proposing to build a new, larger arms destruction plant also in the south area beginning in July to be ready for operations by December 1992. The construction work force is expected to peak with 350 workers, and 400 more workers are needed to operate the plant.

The report says that if the plant operates without accidents, it should pose virtually no threat to the environment or people of Utah with smokestack emissions well within standards.

But if an accident occurs, the results could be catastrophic.

The worst possible accident from plant operations, the report says, could be caused by an earthquake hitting while the new facility is destroying chemical land mines and rockets - which would still have explosives attached when processing begins.

That could start a fire and chemical release that under the worst conditions could disperse "potentially lethal doses of chemical agent to distances near 50 kilometers (31 miles) and the potential for up to 2,040 human fatalities among the residential population around the Tooele South area."

But the report stresses that is only a worst-case scenario.

It says a less than a one in 10,000 chance exists that an earthquake could cause such a chemical agent release. And even if it did, the wind would probably blow the agent away from populated areas. The plant is also being designed to withstand moderate earthquakes and is being built on soil least likely to "liquefy" during an earthquake.

Meanwhile, the report says that earthquakes, meteorite strikes or aircraft crashes in the open yards where one-ton drums of nerve agent will be stored until destroyed could be much worse.

"As many as 30,400 deaths could result from such accidents, and areas up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the storage area could be affected. The possibility of such events will be eliminated when the agents have been destroyed," the report says.

The report also notes that death from nerve agents can occur quickly, often within 10 minutes of absorption of the fatal dose - leaving little time to obtain antidotes. Smaller doses can result in paralysis, vomiting and diarrhea. The chemicals can also persist in the environment and be deadly for days.

The Army is accepting comments about the proposed new chemical arms destruction facility report until June 20. Comments should be addressed to: Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, ATTN: SAIL-PMI, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21010-5401.