STOCKTON, Tooele County — Near this small ranching community 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the first incinerator of its kind in United States is burning a toxic legacy of the Cold War — 13,616 tons of nerve gas and blister agent.
With numerous shutdowns and one acknowledged release of nerve agent into the atmosphere, the Tooele Chemical Disposal Facility (TOCDF) has been a lightning rod for criticism. But residents of nearby communities seem at peace with the plant, which employs about 700. More than half of the employees live in Tooele County.
The Army's $1 billion incinerator is based at Deseret Chemical Depot, a base that also houses rows of storage igloos for the thousands of rounds of chemical arms and storage tanks.
The incinerator began its task in August 1996. By mid-January, it had burned 4,917 tons of chemical agent, 36 percent of the stockpile. The only type of material destroyed so far is GB nerve agent (a k a sarin), with VX nerve agent and mustard agent yet to be burned.
The Tooele stockpile — thousands of munitions, including bombs, projectiles, land mines, spray tanks, rockets and one-ton storage containers loaded with nerve gas or blister agent — once amounted to 44 percent of the country's entire chemical armory.
TOCDF's work is scheduled for completion by 2004.
The campaign is given urgency by the fact that nearly every month, some of the aging munitions stored in protective igloos are discovered leaking, and must be specially double-packed until they are destroyed.
The fact that the incinerator is reducing that risk doesn't mean the picture is entirely rosy. The plant has a history of controversy, mistakes and breakdowns.
But the plant's neighbors have grown used to seeing alarm systems mounted on power poles and hearing the weekly test sirens. They are not worried.
Environmentalists insist the plant may not be safe. The types of incidents that concern them were demonstrated within the past year:
The most serious release happened the night of May 8-9, 2000, when the plant vented nerve gas to the outside air. The incinerator immediately shut down and remained closed for several months.
Only a minute amount of GB leaked from the stack, but none should have escaped. State, Army and federal officials investigated. All concluded that nobody was harmed.
The Centers for Disease Control recommended changes, most of them procedural. After improvements, the plant was back in full operation in September.
In November 2000, low levels of GB were detected on work clothes worn by employees. At worst, it was less than one-quarter of one time-weighted average. Under federal standards, 1 TWA is the level at which a worker can be exposed without harm for eight hours a day, five days a week, for 40 years.
Jason Groenewold, director of the anti-incinerator group Families Against Incinerator Risk, Salt Lake City, contends the plant is not operating as designed.
"The original design was based on draining nerve agent from the bombs and rockets, so that no more than a slight residual amount would go into the metal parts furnace or their deactivation furnace," he said. "However, due to the jelling of agent inside a significant portion of the weapons, the Army has now been incinerating nerve agent in a manner that was never intended."
Officials "really can't assure us that what is coming out of the smokestack is safe," he said.
Dave Jackson, the incinerator's site project manager, responded that the plant operates with alarms and sampling tubes. The Depot Area Air Monitoring System (DAAMS) tubes take samples from smokestack emissions.
"The DAAMS tubes . . . are analyzed with very sophisticated instrumentation," Jackson said. "Since those things are on there 24 hours a day, we know the performance of the system for agent destruction."
The system operates better than the required destruction efficiency, he said. That requirement is a strict one, nicknamed "six nines." The plant must destroy 99.9999 percent of the nerve agent.
"We exceed that tremendously," Jackson said.
The bottom line, according to Jackson, is that the plant is in full compliance with the state's permit, according to the state's interpretation. "This is a safe facility," he said, "and you cannot forgo the fact that we have made the neighbors that I have around me safer."
A quick telephone survey of the plant's neighbors found residents of nearby Rush Valley, Tooele County, support the plant.
"Oh, we're not dead yet. We're still kicking. Of course, I don't know if I've received any harmful effects from it," said Lyle Erickson, whose comments are the closest to a criticism voiced by anyone in this small community during the interviews.
Most of his reactions were like those of his neighbors, a positive feeling about the work the plant is doing to destroy toxic chemical arms. "But one thing I do know," he said. "I think they've eliminated about 50 percent of the hazardous waste in this valley, and that's a plus."
The plant has not stopped real estate values from rising, he said. "Nobody seems too concerned about the gas thing," he said.
Odell Russell, mayor of Rush Valley, lives about four or five miles from the incinerator. "I think I can speak for the community. . . . We have no concern about it. We think it's safe, and I think they're doing a good job."