It was either an "anticipated" minor problem or a harbinger of disaster that shut down the U.S. Army's incinerator in Tooele County Saturday.
Army officials and opponents of the $400 million Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility were busy Monday putting their own spin on the incident in which nerve gas was detected where it should not have been - inside two passageways between banks of air filters in the burn plant's air filtration system.A team of Army investigators from Aberdeen, Md., were expected to begin an evaluation of the incident Monday. The incinerator, which began operations Thursday under a state test permit, could be destroying chemical weapons again by the middle of this week.
Army spokesman Jeff Lindblad said only a "very small amount" of GB nerve agent was detected in an enclosed portion of the plant's filtration system at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. It escaped into a vestibule that separates two of the nine charcoal filter banks through which air from the incinerator's explosive containment room must pass before being released into the environment. The explosive containment room is where chemical agent-filled rockets are drained, dismantled and prepared for incineration.
Employees do not work inside the vestibule, but even if workers had been present, they would not have been harmed, Lindblad said.
"It was below any level that would have been harmful to anybody," he said. "The GB molecules that were detected went right back into the charcoal filters because the whole (filtration system) is under negative pressure. They went right back in and were cleaned out.
"We were anticipating this could happen."
The Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of citizen and environmental groups opposed to the burn plant, issued a statement saying the Army had assured a federal court judge that situations like this - in which nerve agent would migrate through the air filtration system - would not occur in Tooele because such problems had been "worked out of the system" at two prototype facilities in the Pacific and at Tooele Army Depot.
"Now they say it was `anticipated.' That's not what they told the judge," said Craig Williams, a spokesman for the coalition.
John Capillo, operations manager for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation and a member of the Working Group, said the coalition is consulting with its attorneys before taking another step in its battle to stop the incinerator. Its federal court effort failed to halt the start-up, but Capillo said the group hopes to use the shutdown as new ammunition in the fight.
"How many times do we have to hear, `Oh, it's just a small leak that will be taken care of'?" Capillo said in a telephone interview from Berea, Ky. "We're dealing with the most lethal chemical made. Minute dosages can kill people. Little puffs of agent released out of the incinerator must have a chronic long-term effect on the health of people in Utah."
Saturday's incident did not involve a release of agent outside the facility. Lindblad said two other plant monitoring systems showed no indication that agent traveled anywhere else in the facility. He would not use the word "leak" to describe Saturday's problem.
Chip Ward, a Grantsville resident and incinerator critic, said he wasn't surprised by Saturday's event.
"I've always said we can expect the incinerator in Tooele to be very much like the one on Johnston (Atoll) island and that one's been plagued with leaks, accidental releases and other problems," said Ward, a member of West Desert HEAL, a Tooele County watchdog group. "They haven't worked out the bugs."
Lindblad said the vestibules were added to the design of the Tooele plant because of problems experienced at Johnston Atoll.
"This is one of our lessons learned," he said. "At times, (the Johnston Atoll facility does) have small (amounts of) agent that comes out of the doorway or the filters, so we built these vestibules and hooked up monitoring equipment inside the filter bank doors.
"This system is something that's not new. It's used throughout industries like the petro-chemical industry. The Department of Energy uses it in nuclear power facilities and other chemical manufacturers use it."
Lindblad said it is "normal operating procedure" to shut down the plant when even a trace of agent is discovered in any area where it is not supposed to be. He would not speculate on exactly when the burn plant would continue its task of destroying obsolete chemical weapons.
The Army has been permitted to operate the incinerator for a total of 720 hours under the test permit.