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The Planet
Army Chooses Bugs Over Burning

Sierra Club wins 14-year fight to stop weapons incineration

By John Byrne Barry

Ross VincentIn the late 1980s, when Sierra Club volunteer Ross Vincent first challenged the Pentagon's plan to incinerate 2,600 tons of mustard gas being stored at the Pueblo Chemical Weapons Depot in Colorado, he was a lone voice.

This March, the Army announced that it will not incinerate the mustard gas, but will instead use a safer, cleaner method that uses warm water and bacteria.

And Vincent is no longer a lone voice. Thanks to his persistence, incineration was opposed in the end by a formidable coalition of labor unions, community groups, the Catholic Diocese, the county commissioners, the state Senate, the governor and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Co.).

The groundswell of support is a good example, said Rocky Mountain (Colorado) Chapter Director Susan LeFever, "of politicians seeing a parade and rushing to the front to 'lead it.'"

It's also a reminder, she said, that meaningful victories take time. "If we take care of ourselves and each other, we can stick with this for the long haul and win."

Called "water neutralization followed by biodegradation," or the "bug method," this alternative uses water and microbes to break down the hazardous chemicals and is much safer than burning.

In the early 1980s, Congress authorized new chemical weapons, and gave the go-ahead to incinerate existing stockpiles at Pueblo and eight other sites. The Sierra Club supported the destruction of the weapons, but pushed for alternative methods. Incineration of these highly toxic chemicals, said Vincent, could endanger human health and damage crops and livestock.

The bug method had been used for other chemical weapons, but the Army resisted nonetheless. "The Army didn't want to be told what to do," said Vincent.

Vincent credited the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, which worked with the citizens group in Pueblo as well as the other communities adjacent to Army chemical weapons storage sites, with getting Congress to act twice to halt incineration.

"We didn't just fight city hall, we fought the Pentagon," he said. "If small communities working together can move giant bureaucracies, just about anything is possible."

The victory bodes well for several other communities fighting chemical weapons incinerators, like those near the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. But one incinerator has already been built in Utah, another in the Pacific, and a plant in Alabama is beginning preliminary test burns. Two more are under construction. "Incinerator salesmen can no longer argue that incineration is the best available technology," said Vincent. "There's a better way."

"Winning is hard work, but it's great fun," said Vincent. "I recommend it highly."

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