Toxic Clean


 

Fifty miles southwest of Salt Lake
City, in the heart of Tooele (pronounced too-ELL-ah) County,
the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (TOCDF) has
started to burn 42 percent of the nation’s chemical
stockpile. Situated on 27 acres of rugged desert, the $650
million facility houses about 15,000 tons of the world’s
most lethal chemical weapons—including nerve agents GB
and VX, blister agents, and an arsenal of bombs, mines,
mortar rounds, and rockets. To date, TOCDF has destroyed 253
ton containers of GB and 11,592 rockets containing 506,749
pounds of nerve agent. A single drop of agent can kill a
person; according to some projections, a major leak into the
atmosphere would kill one in 10 people within a 40-mile
radius.

The Wellesley, MA-based defense
contractor, EG&G Defense Materials, Inc., was hired by
the Army to oversee operations at the plant, the first of its
kind in the continental U.S. If all goes according to plan,
the deadly munitions will be incinerated by 2004. Since it
went on-line in August 1996, however, TOCDF has been plagued
by problems.

Seven shut-downs have occurred in
the last eight months, apparently due to malfunctioning
equipment, cracking concrete and filter leaks. In two
separate instances, nerve agent was found in areas that are
supposed to be "clean" or agent-free. The Army
insists that no leaks have occurred, either inside the plant
or into the environment. Although Army and EG&G officials
dismiss the troubles as routine, such problems are neither
the facility’s—nor, increasingly, the
public’s—only concern.

Two former employees of
EG&G—ex-safety manager Steven W. Jones and former
general manager Gary M. Millar— have become
whistleblowers, publicly alleging numerous safety risks
within the facility. Jones, 46, a certified safety
professional with over 20 years experience both within and
outside the military, was hired in June 1994. His job was to
oversee the plant’s transition from construction to
operation. Three months later, Jones was fired—because,
he claims, he raised safety issues no one wanted to discuss.

"When I arrived at the plant, I
expected to find it in tip-top condition," said Jones,
who now runs an appliance store in Utah county. "But I
did an internal audit and found literally thousands of
deficiencies. The facility would have failed virtually every
inspection, hands-down."

Jones says he was later asked to
sign off on another independent audit that noted over 2,000
design flaws. More than 100 of those problems, says Jones,
were categorized as "imminent and catastrophic."
When he refused to authorize the report, Jones was fired by
EG&G, who cited differences in management philosophy as
the cause for termination.

"Most of his allegations were
refuted," said Skip Hayes, on-site spokesperson for
EG&G. "There were a number of investigations carried
out by independent contractors— they found Jones’s
issues were not serious."

But Jones’s still-pending
whistleblowing suit, filed at the United States Department of
Labor, may have some support. Gary M. Millar, a 22-year
employee of EG&G, was the general manager of TOCDF from
June 1995 until October 1996. At that time, Millar was
dismissed. A few weeks later, he wrote a 12-page letter to
Fred Parks, EG&G’s recently resigned president and
chief operating officer.

Millar’s memo contends that
"current EG&G management actions are typical of the
senior management at Three Mile Island before their nuclear
incident or at NASA before the Challenger accident."
Claiming that the "safety culture was seriously
lacking" at the plant, Millar concluded, "The TOCDF
facility cannot be operated safely in the long term by
EG&G with the present management staff experience and
‘mindset.’ If these issues are left unaddressed,
another TMI or Challenger type of accident at TOCDF could
occur."

Earlier this year Millar, who was
still on the payroll when he wrote the letter, settled his
grievances with EG&G for undisclosed terms. Opponents
suggest an agreement not to talk may be part of the deal for
Millar, who has not yet spoken to the press. Millar’s
attorney, Roger Hoole, denies the claim.

"My client will remain a
witness and continue to tell the truth," said Hoole.
"His position is that the plant has met minimal safety
requirements and is safe to operate—but he’s not in
full agreement with the message sometimes conveyed by the
defense contractor."

Bob Lockwood, spokesperson for
Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch (R), says Millar’s
claims are being taken seriously—and could lead to
repercussions for the ex-general manager. "Millar’s
grievances will be investigated," Lockwood said from his
Washington, DC office. "Whistleblowing cases cut good
and bad—in this case, it’s the latter. If his
claims are found to be substantiated, we’d like to seem
him prosecuted for failing to disclose the problems in the
first place."

"It seems to be very much in
vogue with people who have problems with EG&G to say
there are safety problems," said spokesperson Hayes.

But outside critics of the chemical
disposal facility remain skeptical. "I don’t feel
like we’re being told the truth," said Lisa
Puchner, a screenwriter and mother of eight who lives in Salt
Lake City. Puchner has organized a 125-member opposition
group, Families Against Incinerator Risk (FAIR), whose main
concern is the health of their children. "Our biggest
fear is the food chain, " said Puchner, 42, a Utah
native. "We are afraid the low-level agent will be
internalized and affect our kids’ immune and
reproductive systems."

Members of FAIR are not alone in
their concerns. In March, the Chemical Weapons Working Group
(CWWG), Sierra Club, and Vietnam Veterans of America
Foundation flied their second injunction in federal court. A
preliminary injunction was rejected last May. The groups
wanted the Army to halt burning at Tooele while the
government explores alternatives to incineration.

Clinton has allocated $40 million to
investigate these "alternative technologies." The
March injunction was also rejected. "In 1982,
incineration was the preferred form of technology," said
CWWG spokesperson Craig Williams. "It was unsafe then
and it is unsafe now. There are ways to destroy chemical
weapons that do not emit toxic waste into the air."

Williams was referring to the
non-incineration technology known as a
"closed-loop" process, in which destruction of
chemicals occurs entirely within a contained system. Williams
said that even in an "upset" condition, emissions
would not be released into the atmosphere. At TOCDF,
incinerated matter passes through several carbon filters
before it is released out of stacks into the environment.
According to officials at the facility, alternative
technologies, while important in their own right, cannot
effectively complete the project at hand.

"Alternative technologies are a
thing of the future, not the present," said
EG&G’s Hayes. "They could be used at specific
sites that do not have explosives or have only one type of
agent. At this facility, there are mixed munitions. The
neutralization process could not destroy the chemicals
completely, so there would be agent left. There is no panacea
out there."

The majority of TOCDF’s
opponents say they support the destruction of the stockpile.
But they maintain this facility’s problems are rooted in
a lax attitude toward safety. They point to EG&G’s
"cost-plus" contract with the Army, in which the
contractor receives financial incentives to stay on or ahead
of schedule. Although he admits that a delay in schedule
would result in a financial deduction for the company,
EG&G’s Hayes denied the contract affects safety.
"The contract has stated uncategorically that safety is
the number-one priority," said Hayes. "We make our
profit based on our ability to meet certain
requirements."

Dennis Downs is the director of the
Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste. He said the state
is satisfied with the facility’s performance. "We
have our own independent, regulatory oversight agency out
there almost all the time. If we had concerns, we would not
continue to allow it to operate. Until there is direct
evidence that it would contribute to a direct health threat,
we are confident the plant is operating safely."

The performance of TOCDF may be of
particular interest to the Army because on its success rests
the future of other proposed incineration facilities.
Alabama, Oregon, and Alaska are the next potential sites.
According to Williams, they are the reason the Army is so
concerned that TOCDF appears safe. "Tooele is being
scrutinized because other destruction sites are predicated on
how this one works," said Williams. "If Tooele
fails, they will not build one elsewhere. We are the guinea
pigs."

Not so, say some residents of
Tooele, who seem unfazed by their potentially dangerous
neighbor. Tooele native Teresa Jones, 38, worked for 4 years
at the plant during its construction phase. Although she got
laid off when it began operating, Jones thinks highly of the
facility. "One thing I know as a government worker is
that safety is number one," said Jones. "I think
the safety concerns are being exploited, exaggerated—we
would have seen major changes if there was something wrong.
We’re not being exposed to anything from the
plant."

Such sentiments are not surprising
from residents of this rapidly growing town of almost 36,000.
Voted one of the 50 boom towns of the United States by
Money
Magazine
in 1996, Tooele is expected to have a
population of over 50,000 by the year 2000. The
community’s simultaneous resistance to and reliance upon
the federal government is clear: bumper stickers flout the
government with slogans like "Re-elect Nobody"; at
the end of last year, the community chose a candidate for
Tooele County Commissioner who supports bringing chemical
weapons from other states to destroy here.

"Tooele is a community that,
historically, is economically linked to military
operations," said Williams. "There is a difference
between what people say publicly and what they really
feel."

As TOCDF continues to burn the
stockpile, people like FAIR’s Puchner will continue to
fight against what for now are invisible threats.
"I’m just a concerned parent who wants her kids to
grow up healthy," said Puchner. "I don’t want
Silkwood to happen here."