Bring on the incinerator.
Tooele County's emergency management director says the county is now - or soon will be - prepared to handle an accidental airborne release of chemical nerve agent and any other incident that could occur when the Army begins incinerating chemical weapons south of Tooele.Kari Sagers said Thursday that she has informed Lorraine Frank, director of the state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management, that the county is ready for the Army to begin a test burn as soon as next month.
Sagers this week completed an assessment of the county's emergency readiness and found that the system is still deficient in six of 15 critical areas. But three of those deficiencies will be cleared up by the end of next month and the other areas should meet with Sagers' approval by the end of September at the latest, she said.
That's a big turnaround from January when Sagers and Tooele County's commissioners feared the county would be unprepared for a June test burn unless they received more federal and state assistance. They got it, including more than $2 million in cash, equipment and services from the Army.
"We're making considerable progress in the areas that are (deficient)," Sagers said in a telephone interview from Seattle.
"We all feel that we don't want to be in a position to have stopped the test burn because we want to start getting rid of the stockpile, too. That's the only way we're going to get rid of the risk. So we're saying the readiness is at an acceptable level."
Sagers has been in Seattle all week attending the annual conference of the National Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, which is working with eight U.S. communities where chemical nerve agents are to be incinerated over the next two decades. The Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility is scheduled to be the first of the eight incinerators to begin operation.
The go-ahead from Sagers is one of the last things the Army needs before it can get a test-burn permit from the state Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste. The state Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management has to formally sign off on Tooele County's emergency preparedness plans before the test burn can begin.
The Army got an informal thumbs-up from the Tooele County Commission on Wednesday when it announced it would pay the county $13 million over the next eight years as compensation for destroying chemical weapons there.
But the Army's plans could be sidetracked by a lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. The Chemical Weapons Working Group, a nationwide coalition of organizations, wants to stop the burn because it says the Army is not ready to destroy the chemical weapons safely.
"When's it going to burn? Who knows?" said Scott Anderson, hazardous waste branch manager for the Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste.
Technically speaking, the agency in 1989 issued a permit for the burn, but still requires three major hurdles be cleared. First, the precise chemical makeup of waste has to be calculated; then an accounting system to track every ounce of the munitions must be approved; finally, the agency must certify that the furnaces have been properly built.
Anderson said the division will probably finish its work by mid-June but he warned two other bureaucracies have to tie up loose ends, too.
The six areas identified as inadequate are:
- Initial alert and activation. The access road to the top of Vernon Hills, where a crucial microwave communication center is located, must be improved and a generator must be placed at the site. Additional phone links are needed before a computerized calling system will be fully functional.
- Protective action implementation for special populations and facilities. Special radio devices that will emit an alert tone in an emergency must be placed in every home in Rush Valley, Stockton and other areas close to the incinerator.
- Traffic and access control. Protective equipment must be issued to law enforcement officers and medical screening for must be completed.
- Medical services, first response. Emergency kits with pre-measured doses of the anecdote for those exposed to nerve gas have to be distributed.
- Communications systems equipment and displays. More equipment needs to be installed.
- Public notification and emergency information. The local emergency broadcast system must be improved.