On Jan. 28, 1987, liquid GB nerve agent leaked through valves or gaskets in Utah's first chemical weapons incinerator, the Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System (CAMDS) plant at Tooele Army Depot.
The liquid vaporized and toxic vapor migrated through the building, seeping into corridors where workers were not required to wear protective suits.An Army report later that year said the ventilation system was faulty and charcoal filters in the incinerator's stack failed, sending GB vapor into the outside air. Although the report calls the amount released "minute," it also says it was above permissible limits.
The Army asserted that nobody was hurt in the incident. However, its investigation showed gaping holes in the CAMDS safety system.
The assessment revealed that management philosophy was misguided; procedures and techniques lacked attention to detail. There was also a lack of an aggressive, dynamic system of checks and balances, safety, training, communication, and procurement programs, the investigative panel concluded.
Additionally, the report found that the primary factor in the system failure was unsatisfactory quality assurance procedures.
CAMDS, which is still in use, was built as a prototype incinerator for the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility that is going online now. It and another prototype, at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, taught administrators how to build a better incinerator.
But the slipshod way in which CAMDS has been run, by the Army's own admission, is one of the factors that make many Utahns fearful of the big incinerator.
The Johnston Atoll facility has worked within its permitted parameters about 25 percent of the time, said Cindy King, vice chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter and a longtime critic of the new incinerator.
At other times, the Johnston Atoll incinerator has been in an "upset" condition, or shut down - emitting between 10 to 1,000 times higher emissions than their permit allows," King said. "We're talking about actual nerve agent being released, nerve agent byproducts, dioxins, furans and PCBs."
In March 1995, she said, the rocket sheering machinery at Johnston Atoll did not punch and drain one of the weapons correctly. The gates did not close properly, causing the agent to migrate into areas where the agent was not supposed to be. Chemicals were released, the plant shut down and the EPA fined the facility hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
In a test of the new Tooele incinerator last fall, a surrogate material was burned instead of actual nerve agent. The gates of the deactivation furnace jammed and did not shut properly, King said. "They had to go in there and fix the chute. We have no data today that those gates have been fixed, and those are the very gates that are to be used (during the plant's normal operations)."
Looking at the longer-term hazards, King believes that exposure to plant emissions or material that escapes can cause upper respiratory ailments, damage to the endocrine system and genetic effects. Nursing infants may have neurological defects or damage to their endocrine systems, she said.
Jon Pettebone, chief of public affairs for the incinerator, scoffs at the notion that the incinerator is dangerous to the public.
"In fact, I came here last year from Texas and had no fear of coming here at all. I talked to people who worked here . . . talked to the citizens and came out, talked to the National Guard and talked to the Chamber of Commerce."
Their comments were so positive that he accepted the job at the incinerator, bought a house and "has no problem at all" with the facility's safety.
Precautions start with the chemical weapons storage igloos, which are located in an area adjacent to the incinerator.
The 208 igloos are shaped like an underground Quonset hut. Some have steel hubs, others concrete hubs; all are covered with earth. "If there is any kind of incident they cave in, rather than out," he said. Monitors inside the igloos and throughout the region keep track of atmosphere's makeup.
"A lot of things out here will set it off," he said of a typical chemical vapor alarm. "Mustard weed, when it's in bloom, will set it off . . . If we paint something, if we stencil a number on a pallet, that's going to set off alarms all over the place."
Every day that the incinerator operates, experts check weather conditions like wind direction, humidity, temperature. They also check the type, volatility, condition and amount of agent that is being processed. All these are factors that can affect the distance that nerve agent can spread before it dissipates harmlessly.
"We run a computer plot based on the worst incident that can happen . . . Once we have that plot, we decide whether or not we're going to conduct that operation." In bad conditions, the operation is called off until the weather improves.
If monitors detect a leak inside an igloo, he said, workers take steps to protect themselves, and Tooele County officials are notified immediately. The leaker is announced to reporters later, when it is verified by more sophisticated laboratory gear.
The base's emergency center is staffed around the clock. Its counterpart, the Tooele County Emergency Operations Center - located in the courthouse in Tooele - operates eight hours a day, and only on weekdays. If an alarm goes off after hours, the sheriff's dispatchers are notified.
Officials have redundant means to make sure the warning goes out. "As soon as they notice anything, they'll pick up a hotline and give us a call," said Myron Lee, spokesman for the Tooele County Department of Emergency Management.
However, he said, the base did slip up by failing to notify the county on June 17, when deadly GB nerve agent leaked into the open air. Tooele County was notified of the incident a month later.
"That was one of the rare ones," Lee said.
The biggest danger in the incineration process "is in between the door of the igloo and the door of the incinerator, in transport from one place to another," he said. But what if nerve agent does spew from the incinerator? In that case, the county has a 15-point checklist of how it should respond, starting with evaluating the danger and deciding what to do.
Options include asking people to evacuate or "shelter in place" - seal up their windows and doors, turn off furnace or air conditioner, close fireplace dampers.
"We've got 37 sirens in Tooele and Utah counties that we would use. We would ring those sirens." They emit a loud "whoop-whoop" warning for three minutes.
Then the loudspeakers will carry a voice message, "like a P.A. system." It tells people what to do and where to go. Also, residents living in the immediate vicinity of the depot will be issued weather warning frequencies - which will be used to deliver warnings if nerve gas spews.Officers will drive around with their loudspeakers, advising people about what to do. If there's time, they'll go door to door.
Traffic control will be a big issue, with Tooele Army Depot providing backup for local officers. "We have mobile decontamination units that we would take as close to the site as we could safely take them."
Seven of the vans are scattered through the region. Ambulances would rush the injured to the decontamination trailers. "Only after full decontamination is performed and verified with victims" would
they be taken elsewhere.
"We wouldn't put people into clean helicopters and ambulances until decontaminated," Lee added. From the decontamination stations, people can be taken to Tooele Valley Regional Medical Center or hospitals along the Wasatch Front.
"Frankly, we anticipate that we would be able to take protective action prior to people getting contaminated," he said.
That's because the worst-case chemical accident would not be when a heavy wind is blowing directly toward Tooele. A lot of mixing in the air will just dissipate the toxins harmlessly. The most hazardous situation to people living any distance away would be a release during a breeze of seven miles an hour, which would keep the chemicals concentrated as they drift.
But a wind that slow would allow plenty of warning, Lee said.
King, the Sierra Club's main spokeswoman against the incinerator, thinks that if the incinerator releases nerve or mustard agent into the open air, "total chaos could arise."
Panicked residents would swarm to the Tooele hospital, she said. "We're questioning if they have the capability to address a normal emergency, let alone one in which people need to be de-con-tam-i-nated."
King emphasized that environmentalists want to see the chemical weapons destroyed as much as anyone does. Their problem is with "the method we should be using," she said. The groups prefer any of a number of alternative ways, from a catalytic extraction process, a chemical-electrical system that breaks down lethal compounds, and a hydro-cracking system.
"It's in the long-term best interest of the nation and all other nations to eliminate chemical weapons entirely," said another long-term critic, Steve Erickson of the military watchdog group Down-winders.
"So yes, we need to get rid of them. Is incineration the best method to do so? I'm skeptical."
Erickson said Congress and the Army decided more than 10 years ago to incinerate, but advances in disposal technology have opened the way to alternatives "that appear to be workable and we believe safer."
As most others involved in the project agree, he thinks the most dangerous aspect of the project is moving the old munitions. "That's true even if you're moving them the short distance from the storage igloos to the conveyor belt to the furnace, because many of them are deteriorated and volatile."
That's why Congress and the Army decided that the eight stockpiles around the country should be destroyed where they are, whether by incineration or other methods.
Tooele's is the first of the stockpiles to undergo destruction, and that's another worry to Erickson. What if opposition in one of the other states is strong enough that Congress relents and allows their weapons to be shipped here? "Putting massive quantities of chemical weapons on the railroad tracks or the highways is a frightening prospect," he said. "So we don't want anyone to move them here or anywhere else."