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Tooele base to demonstrate alternatives to burning nerve gas

Even while the Army's gigantic incinerator is busy destroying weapons filled with nerve gas, another base in the Tooele County desert is preparing to demonstrate alternative ways to get rid of the toxic bombs and ton containers of agent - without burning the chemicals.

The Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System (CAMDS), located near the $600 million incinerator, is being readied to test experimental technologies to destroy nerve agent, said its commander, Lt. Col. Don Killgore. He spoke with the Deseret News during a meeting of the "Dialogue" group of the government's Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment program.The Dialogue group drew scores of experts and activists from across the country to the Salt Lake Hilton for meetings that concluded Wednesday. The group will help decide which of several technologies should be studied as possible alternatives to burning nerve agent.

Opponents of incineration have said it is unnecessarily dangerous. While Congress has mandated that America's estimated 31,495 tons of chemical weapons must be destroyed at the nine sites where they are stored, the public outcry against incineration prompted Congress to pass laws forbidding that method at two of them, at Pueblo, Colo., and Blue Grass, Ky.

As a result, the government is investing $40 million in assessing other ways to destroy agent, such as using caustic material to break down the deadly compounds.

CAMDS is a good choice to test some of the alternatives because it was the country's prototype facility for the destruction of chemical weapons. It processed GB nerve agent from 1979 to 1981.

"We don't know the scope yet of what we may get" in the way of technologies to test, Killgore said. "I can tell you that we have gotten $500,000" to begin the process.

The money came from the program manager for chemical demilitarization, Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment.

"We still have that testing area," Killgore said. The funding will "go into taking all of that old equipment out and have that ready for a testing area" to try out the alternatives to incineration.

Assuming CAMDS gets approval for the tests, it should carry out the demonstrations from July through December. Federal experts are supposed to tell Congress in December which methods are best. "It's a very aggressive schedule," he said.

Besides the labs, CAMDS already has two cubicles that are specially designed to safely handle explosive munitions.

The half-million-dollar funding does not cover cost of new equipment, according to Killgore. It is being used to clean out equipment that has been idle for the past 15 years, making room for the new processes.

The facility must be free of nerve agent from the earlier work. It must have new power and water lines. Pipes to carry decontamination fluid must be installed. A ventilation system will be brought up to par. An air lock is being built. Old chemical tanks must be cut apart and carried out.

"It looks like a jungle now," with pipes and aging equipment that must be removed, Killgore said.

CAMDS has 178 government employees and 88 full-time civilian contractors. When experts begin testing alternative technologies, the number of contract employees is expected to swell.

Meanwhile, Col. Edward A. Fisher of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the deputy manager of business for the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, said the incinerator was shut down for maintenance until recently. "But last Friday we began processing ton containers of GB" nerve agent.

The plant is awaiting permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to resume destruction of M55 rockets. The rockets' shipping tubes contain PCBs, dangerous chemicals whose destruction requires special EPA approval.

Tooele is the location of about 70 percent of the country's chemical weapons. So far the incinerator has destroyed more than 1,161 tons of nerve agent, out of an original stockpile of 13,616 tons.