Activists in five states say the Pentagon should close the Utah chemical weapons incinerator when it finishes destroying its stockpile of toxic munitions.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission submitted a final report to the president Thursday, including a recommendation that Deseret Chemical Depot remain open after it finishes its work with chemical weapons, provided a study finds it is feasible to use it to demilitarize conventional ammunition.
The action overruled an Army recommendation that the Tooele County facility should be closed at the end of the chemical weapons project.
BRAC favored a study of a proposal by local officials to convert the incinerator to demilitarize conventional weapons.
In the latest development, five activist groups wrote to BRAC chairman Anthony J. Principi on Wednesday, opposing the BRAC ruling. The groups are the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL), based in Salt Lake City; GASP, an organization in Hermiston, Ore.; Families Concerned About Nerve Gas Incineration, Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff for Safe Disposal, Pine Bluff, Ark.; and the Chemical Weapons Working Group of Berea, Ky.
"We were given a promise by the Army and federal government that these facilities would be removed once the last chemical weapon was destroyed" from the local stockpile, Jason Groenewold, director of HEAL, told the Deseret Morning News. "And there's this backsliding."
He denounced what he called "a false sense that these facilities are safe to operate." Even incinerators not destroying chemical arms release heavy metals and other toxins into the environment, he said. These materials can "negatively impact the public."
The buildup of toxins released by incinerators can persist in the environment, Groenewold added.
Writing to Principi, the groups made these points:
Communities with chemical weapons stockpiles "agreed to host weapons disposal facilities with the understanding that these facilities would be dismantled after their mission was complete. This is especially true for communities with incinerators, given the health risks associated with ongoing emissions . . . ."
Through the years, the Army and Congress repeatedly said the facilities would be dismantled after their projects were completed. A 1994 report by the Senate Defense Appropriation Committee says, "The committee continues its very strong opposition to any studies or exploration of the possible future use of the chemical destruction facilities.
"This committee will not break faith with the communities that surround these sites by allowing any study that may lead to any further use of these facilities."
The incinerator at Deseret Chemical Depot was designed to have an operating life expectancy of five to seven years. It has already been operating for nine years, with some officials predicting it will last for seven more. Continuing to use it is risky and a flawed business decision, the groups say.
Future use of the incinerators would cement Utah's reputation as having a " 'dump-site' economy."
Craig Williams of Chemical Weapons Working Group said that keeping incinerators operating after their chemical demilitarization projects are completed might seem appealing to elected officials and developers.
"But the long-term effects of incinerator emissions on public health can be devastating," Williams said in a press release.