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
- 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
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