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Marjorie Cortez: Costs will determine where chem weapons go

SHARE Marjorie Cortez: Costs will determine where chem weapons go

It always comes down to the money. In Pueblo, Colo., the city fathers are wringing their hands over a Department of Defense decision to delay the destruction of mustard agent weapons at the Pueblo Chemical Depot. Some Defense Department officials are instead floating the idea of shipping the weapons elsewhere for destruction. Elsewhere would most likely be the Tooele County chemical weapons incinerator.

Colorado's congressional delegation has committed to seeking funding that would keep the weapons and the jobs the water-based chemical arms destruction plant would create. But it's a long shot considering some $30 billion in proposed cuts for the Defense Department. According to the Wall Street Journal, spending on weapons, and research and development would be cut by $38 billion over six years. That's money for new technology and weapons.

Cheryl Irwin, a public affairs spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, told the Deseret Morning News that the Defense Department has directed the Army "to develop alternatives that achieve the extended CWC (the Chemical Weapons Convention) 100 percent destruction deadline of April 2012, and to also develop options for relocation along with other alternatives." Roughly translated, that means the concept of relocating chemical weapons from Colorado and Kentucky is back on the table after being banned by federal law for several years.

This is strange political territory. On the one hand, the federal government has a 2012 deadline to destroy these weapons under international treaty. But transporting chemical weapons by road or rail poses certain risks. In the post-Sept. 11 world, transporting chemical weapons would be a security nightmare. The last thing we need is for chemical weapons to fall in the hands of terrorists.

This is not to suggest that these weapons could not be adequately secured, but large-scale transport of these weapons seems to conflict with our homeland security objectives. Wouldn't it be safer, all the way around, to destroy these weapons where they are?

Understanding the Pentagon only has so much money to spend and the United States is at war, destroying the aging stockpile of chemical weapons where they are currently stored probably isn't a high priority. The budget cut recommendations suggest as much.

As Colorado leaders attempt to pull the stops to keep the weapons and the jobs, Utah activists are clamoring to keep the stuff out. "Utah has already had nearly half the stockpile of chemical weapons," Jason Groenewold, director of the Salt Lake City-based Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, told the Deseret Morning News. "The last thing we need to do is open the doors to even more dangerous weapons and waste."

He's right. Between whatever they're doing at Dugway Proving Ground these days, the ongoing work at the Tooele County chemical weapons incinerator and the prospect of storing spent nuclear rods from power plants on the Goshute Reservation in Tooele County, Utah's done its share of the heavy lifting on the weapons research, hazardous waste storage and chemical weapons destruction front.

And unlike many communities that want to rid themselves of hazardous materials, Pueblo is willing to step up and take responsibility for a stockpile of chemical weapons in its back yard. As the Chemical Weapons Convention suggests, it's too dangerous to have this type of weapons around in 2005. They have to go.

The sad reality is, the decision will ultimately be driven by cuts in the Defense Department budget. The cost of transporting the waste won't come close to the cost of building a new destruction facility — even with the inevitable lawsuits and costs of developing a transportation plan. Never mind that Pueblo, Colo., wants it and Utah doesn't need any more. Utah has the "advantage" of a destruction incinerator that's up and running. That's quite the advantage, isn't it?

Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com.