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State environmental regulators have proposed relaxing the emissions standard for the incineration of chemical weapons at Tooele Army Depot.

The Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste wants to allow the newly constructed chemical arms incinerator to burn chemical and nerve agents at an efficiency rate of 99.99 percent, also known as "four nines."While four nines may seem high, it is a standard 100 times lower than the 99.9999 (six-nines) percent rate that the state had originally proposed.

Based on Deseret News calculations, if TAD burns at the lower rate, more than 2,500 pounds of nerve and chemical agents would be released into the atmosphere over the life of the arms incinerator.

Under the higher standard, the estimate stood at 25 pounds.

Environmental and military watchdog groups are angry that state officials are backing away from earlier assurances that the Army would be required to burn at the six-nines standard.

"Their reason for lowering it is not justifiable," said Cindy King, spokeswoman for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club.

Activists fear that allowing the Army to burn at the four-nines rate will endanger human health and the environment because of the dangerous nature of the nerve agents and because of the bio-accumulative nature of dioxins and furans, which are hazardous chemical byproducts of incineration.

But Rachel Shilton, an engineer with the state division, said the four-nines rate is within federal requirements and will not threaten the public or the environment.

Further, the Army says that it plans to burn at the higher efficiency rate of six nines.

Shilton said the state decided to propose the four-nines standard because that's what is permitted at Aptus Inc., a commercial hazardous-waste incinerator about 40 miles northwest of TAD. Also, USPCI, another commercial incinerator near Aptus, is trying to get permitted at four nines.

"So, in light of having commercial incinerators at four nines, we anticipated that TAD would have requested the lowered rate," said Shilton. "We thought (now) would be a convenient time to do it."

TAD, however, has not requested the lower rate.

Shilton admitted that the state's lowering of the standard may not be too politically popular, given the controversy surrounding the incinerator.

"Technically, four nines is adequate, but politically, we may stay at six nines," she said.

The TAD incinerator has been criticized by activists for its cost overruns and for safety problems. Steve Jones, a former chief safety officer at TAD, calls the incinerator a "death trap" for workers and residents of nearby communities.

Among the nerve agents to be burned at TAD is Sarin, also known as GB, which was the gas terrorists used in the Tokyo subway incident March 20 that killed 10 people and sickened 5,500.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February fined the Army $50,000 for releasing GB from its incinerator on the Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific.

In a press conference earlier this week, Jones and other whistle-blowers said the Johnston Atoll incinerator, upon which the TAD facility has been designed, is fraught with safety problems.

"They do a short run and it breaks down. They do another short run and it breaks down," Jones said. "Never has an incinerator been built that can sustain this technology on a long-term basis. They simply cannot do it."

Shilton said the state is satisfied that the nerve agents can be safely destroyed at TAD. In fact, she said, the incinerator will likely be able to achieve the six-nines standard during its trial burn, which will occur sometime this fall. If that happens, the Army would be required to maintain that standard of efficiency throughout the chemical arms destruction process.

Tim Thomas, manager of the incineration project, says the state's initiative will not affect the Army's commitment to burn at the higher standard.

"We will meet or better the six nines," Thomas said. "We're not going to change anything." Thomas said if any detectable amounts of agents are found in the stack, the incinerator will automatically shut down.

TAD stores an estimated 17,000 tons of chemical weapons - about 42 percent of the nation's stockpile.