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The Planet

Army's Billion-Dollar Plan To Burn Chemical Weapons

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

The Planet, July 1994, Volume 1, number 1

They've been called the poor man's nuclear bomb. Chemical weapons are capable of causing widespread devastation, and they're cheap and relatively easy to assemble. They're also the pariahs of the world's arsenal.

In the late 1970s, Congress ordered the destruction of the Army's obsolete chemical weapons stockpiles. After much foot-dragging, the Army is nearly ready to begin disposal--and the Sierra Club is in the uncomfortable position of trying to stop it.

The dispute does not concern dismantling chemical weapons--an idea with near-universal support--but the Army's use of incinerators to destroy the weapons. The Sierra Club is urging legislators to deny the Army's request for new funding to begin construction of three new chemical weapons incinerators in Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon.

"Incineration is the 1980s version of the hole in the ground," said Ross Vincent, chair of the Sierra Club's Hazardous Waste Committee. "It's classic out-of-sight, out-of-mind technology."

Though exact numbers are still secret, it's estimated that tens of thousands of pounds of chemical weapons--nerve and mustard gases--are slated for incineration in these facilities. The process would release huge amounts of toxic gases into the atmosphere.

Eight incinerators are planned or are under construction in the continental United States. A ninth incinerator, already used for tests, was built on the Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific.

Under pressure from the Sierra Club and other public-interest groups, Congress asked the Army in 1992 to study alternatives to incineration and determine whether they were cost-effective. Both the National Research Council and Army studies have concluded that attractive alternatives exist.

Having spent billions of dollars on a flawed technology, however, the Army is stubbornly clinging to incineration.

"The Army has stuck by incineration, despite the rising cost of building these facilities and growing evidence that the process poses a serious health threat to neighboring communities and the general environment," said Vincent. The cost of the incinerators has ballooned to nearly $1 billion each and is still rising.

The Army claims incineration is the only viable method of disposal because of a statutory deadline for completion of disposal operations by the year 2004. The Sierra Club has urged Congress to remove this argument by extending or canceling the deadline.

For more information: Contact Ross Vincent, chair of the Sierra Club's Hazardous Materials Committee, (719) 561-3117.

What you can do: Contact the following chairs of congressional committees with oversight of Army operations. Urge them to deny the Army's request for new chemical weapons incineration funding and to aggressively pursue the developrnent of alternative technologies.

  • Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chair, Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee
  • Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga. ), chair, Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chair, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee
  • Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), chair, House Armed Services Committee.
  • Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), chair, House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee

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