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Depot starts destroying VX stockpile

Workers at the Army's chemical weapons incinerator near Stockton, Tooele County, began destroying the country's largest stockpile of VX nerve agent weapons precisely at noon Friday.

According to Deseret Chemical Depot, the Army facility housing both the incinerator and storage igloos where weapons and containers are kept, more than 1,300 tons of VX is contained in seven different munition types. After the VX campaign is finished in about a year, the incinerator will take on the stockpile of mustard agent.

First in line for destruction were M55 rockets carrying the deadly material. "They punched them and drained them" and now the incinerator is back in operation, spokesman Chuck Sprague said,

Last year, the plant had completed destroying the depot's stockpile of 6,000 tons of GB nerve agent (sarin), and was starting the switch-over to destroy VX. But on July 16, 2002, two workers were performing maintenance work, when alarms went off indicating the presence of GB vapor.

Medical exams showed one of the workers was exposed to GB, although depot officials said he was well enough to return to work the following day. Until Friday, the incinerator had been closed while the VX changeover continued and new safety procedures were implemented.

On Friday, Michael Parker, acting director of the Chemical Materials Agency, a new federal agency that oversees the incinerator, said the startup is an important milestone in the drive to eliminate America's chemical weapons stockpiles.

"Having worked in close cooperation with our independent oversight agencies, state regulators and program partners to prepare for this day, we believe that all of the pieces are in place for the successful completion of VX operations in Tooele in 2004," he said.

In the written statement, Parker added, "World events continue to illustrate the critical importance of our mission to eliminate, as safely and quickly as possible, these chemical weapons."

As toxic as GB was, VX is potentially more dangerous to work with. A tiny drop of the oily substance on the skin can kill.

However, of all the material once in the stockpile near Stockton, officials believed GB was most dangerous to the public because it can disperse more easily in the atmosphere. So in 1996, when it started operations, the incinerator tackled GB first.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com