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Federal lawsuit targets incinerators in Utah, other sites

S.L. group is among those suing the Army

Nineteen environmental and social action groups announced they filed a federal lawsuit against the Army on Tuesday, seeking to halt the burning of chemical weapons in Utah and elsewhere.

One of the plaintiffs is Families Against Incinerator Risk (FAIR), Salt Lake City. Defendant is the Army.

The $1 billion incinerator in Tooele County began destroying the country's largest cache of chemical arms in 1996. Since then, it completed burning GB nerve agent (sarin) and has been switching over to handle the viscous nerve agent VX. But last July, a worker was exposed to residual GB, and the plant has been shut down since then.

Earlier, a spokesman for the incinerator cited mid-February as the reopening date, but that period passed without an announcement that it was back on-line.

Utah's incinerator is not the only target of the lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C. It asks for an injunction forbidding burning the stockpiles at incinerators at Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Umatilla, Ore.; and Tooele.

The action claims the federal government violated environmental law by not including the Utah facility in a 2002 programmatic environmental impact statement on destroying chemical weapons. It claims communities near incinerators would be in danger and boosts alternative technologies.

In 1996, Congress ordered alternative methods used in destroying a stockpile at Blue Grass Depot and Pueblo Chemical Depot, Colo.

Opposition to burning also spurred development of neutralization technologies to eliminate bulk containers of nerve agent stored at Aberdeen, Md., and Newport, Ind.

The suit claims incineration poses dangers to local residents.

"The emission into the environments in and around the communities in Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluffs, Ark.; Umatilla, Ore., and Tooele, Utah, of chemical weapons agents, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals and other dangerous substances will disproportionately impact infants and children," it says.

The Utah plaintiff is the group Families Against Incinerator Risk, based in Salt Lake City. "If everything were hunky dory out at the incinerator, they wouldn't have been shut down for the last eight months," said FAIR's director, Jason Groenewold.

"All we're doing is asking for the Army to take a serious look at the safer alternatives (to destroy chemical weapons) that have been selected at other sites."

Other plaintiffs include the umbrella organization Chemical Weapons Working Group, based in Berea, Ky., and such groups as the Calhoun County (Ala.) Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Arkansas Women's Action for New Direction, Oregon Rural Action and Washington Public Interest Research Group.