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Arms incinerator cited in 25-count violation notice

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The state has cited the Army's chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele County for alleged oversights, errors and occasional foot-dragging, in a 25-count "notice of violation."

The violations were not serious enough to justify closing the incinerator, said Dennis Downs, director of the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, which issued the notice on Monday. The $600 million plant has been operating since August 1996 to destroy about 13,200 tons of deadly chemical munitions, about 44 percent of the country's total."Assurance is given to the public that TOCDF (the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility) continues to operate safely in disposing chemical weapons," said Jon Pettebone, spokesman for the plant. "Round-the-clock monitoring continues to take place by both plant and state officials to assure worker and public safety."

Each violation is a concern, and the plant reaffirms its commitment to adhere fully with requirements of the state permit that allows it to operate, he said. Pettebone specifically mentioned that the plant will comply with the rule that it must report any problems to the state.

According to the division, all of the issues were addressed as soon as they were discovered. They were lumped together in a single formal notice, however.

"We required immediate response on each violation," Downs said. "Public health and the environment were never endangered even though there were numerous instances of noncompliance. We believe the facility can continue to operate, but we expect continuous improvement and immediate resolution when new issues are identified."

Some of the violations were technical, such as leaving a container of slag in a slag pit for 98 days when a state permit allowed only 90 days of storage there. But others were more substantial. Downs summarized them as falling into three categories:

- Besides the state's inspections, the Army is required to inspect the operations. But "many inspections were not properly completed, and recordkeeping was not always clear and accurate. The state believes noncompliance conditions are being identified and corrected," division officials explained in a release.

- At times some of the thousands of standard operating procedures are not followed. One example is the April 22 incident in which two workers left a door to a hazardous area open. Both lost their jobs over the incident and five supervisors were reprimanded by officials of EG&G Defense Materials Inc., Wellesley, Mass, which operates the plant under an Army contract.

- Operating condition limits are supposed to govern how the plant works. "Occasionally those limits weren't met. As an example, a backup stack monitoring device must be checked and replaced every five hours. Replacement didn't occur for six hours on one occasion."

The plant is not allowed to feed waste into the metal parts furnace if any of the cut-off instruments fails to work right. But on Jan. 24, the automatic feed cut-off instrument measuring temperature in a quenching tower was removed for calibration, says the citation.

"While the instrument was out, waste was fed to the MPF (metal parts furnace) by control room operators."

The permit also prohibits feeding waste into liquid incinerators if any of the waste cut-off instruments fails to operate properly. However, on Feb. 11, plant workers repairing a leak isolated the acidity and density measurement instruments that served one of the liquid incinerators.

"This made the instruments inoperable. The control room continued to feed waste to (the incinerator) for 26 minutes after the instruments became inoperable," the citation charges.

The release does not talk about foot-dragging, but that is alleged by the notice of violation. One crucial requirement is that during the trial burn to see if the facility is capable of safely carrying out its mandate, if any performance standard is not met, facility managers are to immediately notify Downs.

However, on an April 17, 1996, test of the deactivation furnace system, the facility failed to meet the standard for destruction and removal of two surrogate test materials. Downs should have been notified no later than the next day, but "was not notified until April 23, 1996," the report says. (The furnace later passed the test.)

Other instances of foot-dragging happened when operators did not notify Downs within seven days after modifications were completed, as they were required to do.

On Jan. 26, as reported earlier, chemical agent vapor leaked into observation corridors because of a loss of air pressure.

Among the citations that could raise eyebrows are that on 19 occasions, inspections of such facilities as storage areas were not carried out; a tank was never marked that it was used to store hazardous waste; a container holding hazardous waste was not closed while it was stored; forms did not properly show how many chemical warfare rockets were processed.

The state will decide later what penalties it will seek, assuming the citations are proven. The most serious could result in fines of up to $10,000 per violation, according to the division.

Pettebone noted that investigators have looked into the plant's operations and made recommendations for improvements. The recommendations "have been implemented," he said.

All agencies looking into the facility "have indicated that the plant is operating safely," he said.