Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

Chemical Weapons Incineration

Chemical weapons incineration was a hotly debated topic in Utah prior to the Leavitt administration. Dennis Downs, former Director of the DEQ Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, the agency that regulates the Incinerator, worked on this issue from the very beginning.  “At what is now known as the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele County, there was a stockpile of chemical weapons, including nerve agents and mustard agent. These chemical weapons had been stored there for many years–starting clear back to the 1940’s. The State of Utah had approximately 43% of the nation’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, secured, stored and monitored in earthen bunkers in the south area of the Tooele Army Depot, now designated Deseret Chemical Depot (DCD).” These chemical weapons and agents were never used by the military in combat, but the stockpiles were built up in case they were needed. In conjunction with an international treaty on chemical weapons destruction, the commitment was made by the federal government to destroy all of those weapons.

Because of the extreme risk, due to the types of chemical agents involved and the deterioration of the weapons and containers, two decisions had been made prior to the Leavitt administration: 1) the chemical weapons and agents would be destroyed at Deseret Chemical Depot, because the risk of leakage and exposure to the public was too great to allow transportation to another facility out-of-state, and 2) leaving the chemical weapons and agents in storage posed greater risk to the public, from detonation or leakage, than the risk of exposure from incineration. “It was decided that the Army would build a chemical weapons disposal incinerator at Deseret Chemical Depot, including using the lessons learned from the successful destruction of chemical weapons at the Army’s incinerator on Johnston Atoll, in the Pacific. The incinerator in Utah, known as the Tooele Chemical Destruction Facility (TOCDF), required a lengthy permitting process through federal and state regulatory agencies; the permit process was initiated in 1989 to build that incineration facility. Completion of construction and surrogate testing of the facility occurred during Governor Leavitt’s administration; construction was complete in July of 1993; surrogate testing and trial burns, with non-lethal chemicals, occurred through June 1995, and the incineration of chemical weapons began in August 1996.” Utah was the first continental disposal sight, but there were five other storage facilities with stockpiled chemical weapons and agents in the United States. “There was a desire to transport chemical weapons and agents from other sites to Utah for destruction, rather than build incinerators or other destruction facilities at the other stockpile sites. However, Governor Leavitt refused to allow weapons to be transported to Utah. He said storage facilities needed to destroy their own weapons. Despite persistent, ongoing efforts to change that decision, Governor Leavitt refused to allow additional stockpiled chemical weapons and agents to be shipped to Utah. Ultimately, Congress refused to allow stockpiled chemical weapons to be transported across state borders.” “The first weapons to be destroyed contained GB Agent, a nerve agent.  One thousand pounds were destroyed, which was eight percent of the stockpile. In March of 2002, the destruction of all of the GB agent, in weapons and ton containers, was completed,” Dennis noted. “That was very significant because the GB was the bulk of chemical agents that we had stored here and it was probably the most dangerous as far as toxicity; it presented the greatest hazard. Next began the destruction of VX chemical agent, another nerve agent, which started in March of 2003.” That was the year that Governor Leavitt went to EPA. At the time he left, about 2% of the VX stockpile had been destroyed. The stockpiled VX is now all destroyed.

The Deseret Chemical Depot is now into the mustard agent campaign; mustard is a blister agent.  As of late 2009, 61% of the mustard agent had been destroyed. Cumulatively, about 82% of the total stockpile has been destroyed. It will probably take about another two years to complete that campaign, and then all of the stockpiled chemical weapons and agents will be gone.  Looking back, Dennis recalls lessons learned, “I think one thing that was crucial to this process was the “homework” that was done and the “on-the-ground” work that was done, not only by the Army, but the regulatory agencies including our agency and the EPA. We all made sure that everything was in place and would operate properly before the actual destruction of the weapons began.  This went a long way to help the public understand that storage of those chemical agents created a higher risk than destroying them. And, the longer they were stored, the higher the risk level, so just getting it right the first time and having a safe operation was well worth it, whatever minor time delays occurred because of being thorough.” A Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Chemical Weapons was established by the Governor’s office when the facility was constructed. This was suggested by the Army and was a commission of twelve people who represented state regulatory agencies, the public, and Tooele County. They have met every other month for all of these years. Their purpose as a group is first, to keep the Governor advised, and second, to hear citizen complaints so there would be a forum for the public to express concerns. Concerns were aired publically to the Commission and the Army. “That has proved to be quite a good program,” according to Dennis Downs. “There was also a document system put in place to make sure that the public could easily access records, the large amount of documents and data, associated with permitting, operating, and inspecting the facility. The Division transitioned from a paper system to a totally electronic document system, which facilitated faster, more efficient and complete access to information.” There were legal challenges to the permit and operations of TOCDF. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to stop the program, because they didn’t believe that incineration was a safe method for disposal of these weapons. There was a group called the Chemical Weapons Working Group, from Kentucky, which joined with the Sierra Club in the lawsuit. The Chemical Weapons Working Group opposed any destruction by incineration at stockpile sites throughout the country. There were administrative appeals before the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board, the first step in the legal challenge to the state permit. Those appeals were not successful; the Board upheld the permit and in the subsequent appeals to the Utah Court of Appeals, the Board’s decision was upheld.  Importantly, throughout the operation of the incinerator at the Deseret Chemical Depot, the public has continued to have access to information, questions are raised and addressed, lessons learned are incorporated, inspection and monitoring continues to ensure safe operations, and the risk to the public from stockpiled chemical weapons has been significantly reduced and will soon be zero. This has been accomplished in an open, public process, with multiple federal, state, and local agencies working to accomplish a common goal: the safe destruction of chemical weapons.

Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service