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WOULD BURNING OF ROCKET MOTOR HARM WILDLIFE?

State wildlife and air-quality regulators fear Hercules Inc.'s burning of a defective rocket motor in the Great Salt Lake Desert could unleash harmful amounts of pollution into the air and harm birds nesting in the area.Reactions to the aerospace company's environmental assessment were released Friday by the state Division of Wildlife Resources and Division of Air Quality.

In an environmental assessment issued recently, Hercules has proposed burning three segments of a defective Titan IV solid rocket motor on Hill Air Force Base's test range 70 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Wildlife officials said they would oppose the open-air burning if it took place between mid-April through July. "During other months of the year, our concerns would be significantly reduced," the wildlife division said.

Nearby Gunnison and Club islands house one of the nation's major nesting colonies for American pelicans, wildlife officials said, and Hercules failed to address the impact of residue - particularly aluminum oxide - from the burn settling on eggs, young and featherless birds.

Air-quality regulators, which issue the open-burning permit, said they can't approve Hercules' proposal because projected hydrogen chloride concentrations from the burning exceed levels the state uses to determine air-toxicity risk.

Hercules and Hill AFB officials are reviewing the comments. "This is a continuing process, and the document they are responding to is a working draft only," Hercules spokesman Dave Nicponski said. "There will be public hearings, and as part of this process all issues will be addressed."

Downwinders, a military watchdog group, was relieved the state recognized the possible health hazards resulting from open burning of rockets. "What's more important is that this will prevent precedent being set, leading to open detonation and burning of thousands of rocket motors and all manner of explosives and propellants in the future," spokesman Steve Erickson said.

Downwinders said open burning should be halted while safer technologies of rocket and weapons destruction are developed.

Ironically, Hercules recently received an $8.5 million Army contract to develop a method of extracting and recycling rocket motors instead of burning them.

But Nicponski said the $300,000 cost of storing unused rocket motors prohibits the aerospace company from waiting until a cleaner method is approved.

Erickson showed little sympathy. "That's the cost of doing business, and the public health shouldn't have to bear Hercules' built-in costs," he said.