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Statesman Journal: Neutralize Mustard Gas, Don't Burn It

August 05, 2008
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By GAP Senior Counsel, Richard Condit. Versions of this op-ed also appeared in the East Oregonian and Hermiston Herald.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) are responsible for overseeing the disposal of chemical warfare agents stored at the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot, including 2,200 tons of mustard agent.

Prior to 2007, the plan was to simply incinerate the waste, a practice defended because it is a quick fix. In theory, dangerous byproducts of the incineration process (lead, dioxin, PCBs) would not be emitted in harmful quantities because of the purported maturity of the incineration technology and the addition of filtration systems.

There's a big problem. The mustard agent contains a significant amount of mercury — which incineration can't destroy and filters won't completely capture. If the plan to incinerate proceeds, which the DEQ and EQC want, it is a certainty that mercury will be released into surrounding communities and the environment, including the Columbia River.

Luckily, Oregon law is unique in requiring that the "best available technology" be implemented when destroying hazardous wastes. Which is why the Government Accountability Project, at the request of local individuals and groups such as GASP, Oregon Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit last year to challenge the blind reliance on incineration. There is a better way to proceed.

Three years ago, an Army Depot in Maryland began using a chemical "neutralization" technique to dispose of its mustard agent. That successful effort saw the stockpile destroyed safely and efficiently. Despite this success, an NPR report stated that a DEQ official indicated "there are no tests available to show that neutralization is safer."

Such statements exemplify the "world is flat" thinking that has handcuffed the DEQ in their decision-making regarding the destruction of the Army's chemical weapons. Neutralization employs an essentially closed loop system that isolates mercury and other metals, producing a new chemical mixture — one that can be analyzed and safely disposed of. If results are poor, the mixture is rerun until suitable results are achieved. The amount of dangerous pollutants released during neutralization is miniscule compared to those which Umatilla would release through incineration.

With the backing and insistence of the Army and its contractors, the DEQ and EQC are planning to continue with incineration. In January, the EQC held a private teleconference between government officials to discuss how to proceed in response to our lawsuit. Journalists were invited, as required by statute, but the EQC exercised its option to mandate that reporters attend for "background purposes only," meaning that the officials' reasoning would remain secret.

Just a few weeks ago, the EQC was presented with a long overdue DEQ report (strongly influenced by the Army) on the public health and environmental risks posed by the incineration. This report detailed how emissions, not including mercury, increased public cancer risk at a rate far beyond state standards. Despite this new information, the DEQ recommended that the EQC approve the report, allowing the Army to continue business as usual.

There remains one last chance to inject sound decision-making that would better protect public health and the environment — public meetings will be held by the DEQ on July 24 and the EQC from Aug. 21-22 to hear citizen comment before having to unequivocally decide on the "best" available technology to destroy the agent. It should be clear that "best" doesn't mean unnecessarily risking the health of Oregon citizens to serve the interests of the Army. But we have yet to see thinking along these lines.

The choice remains clear. The advantages are evident. Oregon officials shouldn't allow incineration when safer alternatives exist. Concerned citizens have one last chance to make a difference for their environment and fellow Oregonians.

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