From the pages of Z Magazine

 

Toxic Clean

By Amber Older

 

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."