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Mustard Agent Burning Opposed

Groups argue Army's plan would release unsafe levels of mercury

by Lois Ember
February 27, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 9

Credit: U.S. Army Photo
This 1-ton tank contains aging mustard gas awaiting destruction at the Army's Tooele, Utah, site.
Credit: U.S. Army Photo
This 1-ton tank contains aging mustard gas awaiting destruction at the Army's Tooele, Utah, site.

Environmental and citizens groups have raised concerns about the Army's plan to burn mercury-containing mustard agent at its Tooele, Utah, chemical weapons disposal facility. The groups claim that incineration of the mustard agent will release into the air levels of mercury, dioxins, and other toxics that "are unsafe and unacceptable."

At issue is the Army's request to Utah's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to modify its operating permit to burn mustard agent containing less than 1 ppm of mercury. "To barely meet federal mercury standards," says Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the Army plans to slow down the rate at which 1-ton containers move through the incinerator.

According to Martin D. Gray, manager for DEQ's chemical demilitarization section, DEQ assumes that all the mercury present will be volatilized and released to the environment because the incinerator will have no filtration system to trap it. The Army plans to use such a system later, Gray says, when it requests still another modification to its operating permit to burn mustard agent containing greater than 1 ppm of mercury.

Given its track record, Gray believes that the Army has submitted a modification to its operating permit that will meet federal regulations and "can be approved." But, he adds, "I can't say it will be approved until we review public comments and perform our risk assessment."

If the assessment shows that the Army's plan meets federal standards, DEQ will issue a modified operating permit, Gray says. The Army's contractor, EG&G, plans to begin "destruction operations later this summer," says Elizabeth A. Lowes, EG&G's environmental manager.

Williams says the Army's plan doesn't reduce the amount of mercury being released to the environment; it just extends the time period over which it is released. "This reflects the inadequacy of the regulation and the unwillingness of DEQ to act in the best interest of communities." He contends that it's safer to neutralize mustard agent than to burn it.



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