Rachel's Democracy & Health News #870  [Printer-friendly version]
August 31, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Fifteen years into their fight against the
Army's plan to incinerate leftover chemical weapons, citizens are
proposing safer alternatives for getting the job done.]

By Peter Montague

In Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, the U.S. Army is preparing to
spend a decade incinerating 12,000 tons of leftover "mustard agent" --
a chemical weapon intended to immobilize enemy soldiers by producing
painful, debilitating blisters on skin and lungs. In Tooele County,
Utah, where about half the nation's mustard agent resides,
incineration began last week.[1]

The mustard agent is presently stored in aging cannisters on military
bases in the four states and the Army says it is safer to incinerate
it than to do nothing.

But this week a coalition of citizens issued a sophisticated
engineering report arguing that there's a third alternative besides
"do nothing" and incineration: chemical neutralization. The Chemical
Weapons Working Group (CWWG) in Berea, Kentucky concluded that it
seems feasible for the Army to neutralize mustard agent using warm

CWWG acknowledged that it lacked sufficient information to demand that
the Army immediately shift from incineration to neutralization.
Instead, they want the Army itself to study chemical neutralization,
with citizen participation. "The purpose of the report is to try and
compel the Army to perform due diligence of the fundamental
questions," says Craig Williams the leader of CWWG.

Neither CWWG nor its constituent citizen groups oppose destruction of
the chemical warfare agents -- they just want it done as safely as

This is a classic example of citizens taking a modern approach to
community protection -- setting goals (destruction of the mustard
agent), examining available alternatives to find the least hazardous,
and creating opportunities to participate in decision-making. And, as
Elizabeth Crowe of CWWG points out, it shows that it is never too late
to pay attention to new information, to heed early warnings and invoke
the precautionary principle.

The Army announced new information recently -- it discovered the toxic
metal mercury in the mustard agent at the level of 65 parts per
million (800 pounds of mercury in 6200 tons of mustard agent). If this
level of mercury were present in all 12,000 tons, the incinerator
program would be releasing 1560 pounds of mercury into the environment
-- a very large release of a metal that is poisonous in microgram
quantities. In addition, there's a distinct possibility that the Army
has underestimated the total quantity of mercury involved.

So far, the Army's response to the mercury problem has been to say it
will burn the mustard agent more slowly than initially planned, so
that the concentration of mercury in the incinerator's smoke stack
will never exceed the air quality standards set by U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA). Of course with this approach, the mercury
emitted would still total 1560 pounds -- it would just leave the stack
more slowly. On the other hand, EPA announced recently that it is
now re-evaluating controls for incinerators -- which could put the
Army's chemical weapons incinerators out of compliance and delay the
whole program. Williams says this is another reason for the Army to
abandon incineration now, to avoid an unpleasant surprise later.

History of the Program

The Army decided in 1984 to incinerate leftover chemical warfare
agents -- "mustard gas" (which is actually a liquid), plus far more
deadly agents, VX and GB, also known as sarin, which are true gases --
at eight locations: Anniston, Alabama; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Umatilla,
Oregon; Tooele County, Utah; Aberdeen, Maryland; Richmond, Kentucky;
Pueblo, Colorado; and Newport, Indiana.

By 1985, opposition was growing at each location as people began
wondering whether incinerating chemical warfare agents could be done
without accidentally releasing deadly gases. No one opposed
destruction of the chemical warfare agents -- but many questioned
whether incineration was the best option.

The Army basically stonewalled the questions, insisting that it knew
best. Citizens had reason to wonder whether the Army's programs always
made good sense.

In the mid-1980s, the Army built an experimental incinerator for
chemical weapons on Johnston Island, an atoll 700 miles southwest of
Hawaii. Congress's General Accounting Office examined the test program
and reported that "unplanned and unscheduled maintenance downtime
problems... occurred on an almost daily basis." Still the Army
insisted all was well -- a stance of denial that did not inspire
confidence in communities slated for incinerators of their own.

In 1989 it was revealed that the Army owned at least 14,000
contaminated sites -- including some of the largest and most dangerous
environmental hazards imaginable. For example, it was revealed that
over the years the Army had fired or dumped an estimated four million
rounds of ordinance into the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay near
Aberdeen. Many of these rounds were unexploded bombs and rockets
filled with mustard agent, nerve gas, chlorine gas, or tear gas.[2]
They have never been recovered. Nautical charts show the area as
"restricted -- keep out" but people fishing in a skiff don't
necessarily consult charts.

In 1991 community groups from the eight communities targeted for
chemical weapons incinerators formally launched a coalition, the
Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), led by Craig Williams, a
Vietnam veteran in Kentucky. Since then their coalition has grown to
over 200 groups nationwide.

The same year, 1991, CWWG commissioned a study of alternative methods
for destroying chemical warfare agents. That study indicated that
chemical neutralization would work well for mustard agent. Mustard
agent contains chlorine, which -- if burned -- would produce dioxins
and furans, among the most toxic chemicals known to science.
Neutralization would avoid production of these most toxic of

The Army stonewalled and resisted, but CWWG and its constituent
citizen groups went to Washington and bent the ears of their
Congressional delegations. The citizens' position -- we want this
done, but we want it done as safely as possible -- resonated.
Eventually Congress ordered the Army to consider alternatives to

As a direct result of CWWG's member groups bringing relentless
pressure on the Army at every possible opportunity, providing detailed
alternatives for the Army to consider, and getting Congressional staff
involved -- the Army eventually abandoned the incinerators planned for
Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland,[3] where it proceeded to
neutralize 1818 tons of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground
without mishap.

Now CWWG wants the Army to consider doing the same thing with mustard
agent at all the other sites. The report released this week showed,
from an engineering perspective, that it seems feasible and affordable
to either retrofit incinerators with neutralizers, or to build new
neutralizers near each existing incinerator.

The Army now has more experience neutralizing mustard agent (1818
tons) than it has incinerating mustard agent (67 tons) -- so the Army
may have a hard time squirming out of the embarrassing position CWWG
has put it in. And of course if the Army balks, CWWG has already
demonstrated that it knows how turn the screws in Washington.

CWWG has demonstrated that a tiny group of citizens can take on a
multi-billion-dollar Pentagon program and win. By sticking to their
knitting, keeping their eye on the prize, and never, ever giving up,
Craig Williams and his seasoned band of incineration fighters across
the country have proven once again, as Margaret Mead famously said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

[1] Patty Henetz, "Cold war's killer gas on way to extinction," Salt
Lake City (Utah) Tribune May 19, 2006.

[2] John M. Bull, "Army Site May be Too Hazardous to Clean,"
Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. F1. And John M. R.
Bull, Phil Galewitz, and Kenn Marshall, "Nation's military has toxic
embrace," Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News Feb. 26, 1989, pg. A1.

[3] Juliet Eilprin, "Chemical weapons disposal drawn-out," Deseret
News (Salt Lake City, Utah), July 8, 2006.