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Thursday, April 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Chemical Weapons Incineration|Sparks Donnybrook In Court

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - The Department of Environmental Quality's incineration of chemical weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Demilitarization Facility releases far more mercury than the department claimed in its permit application, environmental groups say. The groups want the department to use the system that the Army used to destroy chemical weapons at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Umatilla facility stores 12 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile.

G.A.S.P, a Umatilla-area environmental group, Oregon Wildlife Federation, The Sierra Club, and six citizens want the court to stop incinerations at the facility while the department reconsiders the neutralization system.

The Umatilla Facility houses about 3,700 tons of chemical agents that make nerve and mustard gas, as well as rockets, bombs, projectiles and mines. The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency and federal contractor Washington Demilitarization Company began incinerating chemical weapons at the Umatilla Facility in 2004.

The Army must destroy all chemical weapons at Umatilla by 2012 under the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty.

In 1997, the Environmental Quality Commission issued permits to the Army to destroy the Umatilla Facility's chemical weapons, with the goal of eventually shutting the facility down. But the Army discovered that its permitted incineration method could release more mercury than it claimed. Since then, the department has been locked in battle with environmental groups over the safest way to deal with the threat.

The plaintiffs say neutralization would be safer than incineration. They champion neutralization as a closed system, which they say generates no waste, but re-treats byproducts through the system until they are safe enough for a final trip through a standard wastewater treatment facility.

In contrast, the carbon filter system that the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission has decided to use is susceptible to catching fire, the plaintiffs say. During a fire, the system would release "massive amounts of harmful mercury, dioxin, chemical agents and products of incomplete combustion." Also, "the system must be bypassed during incineration malfunctions and incineration upsets," leading to more toxic pollution, the plaintiffs say.

Such an incident occurred in May, according to the lawsuit. But the plaintiffs say that incident did not figure into the Commission's decision.

The department dismissed neutralization, finding that it would slow down the disposal system, "increasing the amount of time the munitions remain in storage. Continued storage is the greatest contributor to public risk. Thus, this option would unnecessarily increase the risk to the public/environment."

The commission agreed, rejecting the neutralization method as too messy, saying that it would "generate effluent and reside that would not meet land disposal restrictions and would likely require additional treatment by incineration."

The plaintiffs first challenged the Army permits in 1997. In that case, the Circuit Court found that "stored mustard agent may well contain mercury contamination to a level enormously higher than assumed when the permit was issued, and that mercury cannot be eliminated by incineration or by the carbon filters as contemplated at the time the permit was issued, or by any mechanism or process actually implemented since."

The circuit found that the agencies' permitted incineration method did not use the best available technology and that the method could cause major harm to public health and the environment.

On remand, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission reiterated its finding that its plan used the best available technology and represented no significant threat to public health or the environment.

The plaintiffs say the commission contradicted its own finding that neutralization was "safe and effective." The commission added a carbon micronization system to its decontamination plan, calling the system "required" as part of the best available technology.

But the plaintiffs say that the agencies failed to consider the contaminated waste that would be created by the carbon micronization system. The agencies also failed to assess the costs of storing and eventually decontaminating the newly created waste.

The plaintiffs are represented by Richard Condit with the Government Accountability Project and Thad Guyer with T.M. Guyer and Ayers.

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