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DUGWAY PROVING GROUND — The U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground is working with the Department of Homeland Security this week for 5- and 10-ton releases of chlorine gas — a chemical that could be deadly if inhaled in high concentrations.
The test series, deemed Jack Rabbit II, is meant to simulate a large-scale chlorine gas leak so emergency response teams better understand how the chemical behaves in large quantities and know how to act if such an incident were to take place.
Millions of tons of toxic chemicals such as chlorine are transported each year through urban communities in massive quantities, including 90-ton rail cars and 20-ton tanker trucks, so the threat is imminent, said Shannon Fox, Jack Rabbit II program manager and lead scientist for the Department of Homeland Security.
If the pressurized tanks are punctured, the liquid chlorine would emit in thick, green plumes that could severely corrode metal and burn skin and lungs upon contact, Fox said Monday on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
"It is scary, but that's why we're trying to understand it so we can be proactive," he said. "Domestically, we don't have any indications that there's a concern. However, we prepare for it. We take it very seriously. … We're invested in saving lives, no matter what the source."
The simulations, which started last week and will continue until the end of next week, are the largest tests of their kind at the Dugway Proving Ground, said Damon Nicholson, Dugway program manager. It's also the first test program to study the chemical's effect on buildings and vehicles.
In 2010, the grounds conducted a similar test series, Jack Rabbit I, with 1- and 2-ton releases of ammonia and chlorine. Fox said officials realized from those tests that they needed to experiment on a larger scale to validate what computer hazard models were predicting.
"We're kind of flying blind until we actually do the test and figure out the way it's actually going to behave," Fox told the KSL.
The testing is safe, he said, because it is taking place on the Salt Flats nearly 40 miles away from communities where there is little animal or plant life.
Nicholson said officials have been trying to flush birds out of the area before each test.
"Right now we're pretty confident that we're being as low impact to the environment as possible," he said.
Fox said both 5- and 10-ton plumes were already released in three experiments last week, and detectors placed 7 miles away only sensed a slight amount of chlorine.
"By the time it goes another 30 miles away, there's essentially nothing left," he said, adding that chlorine, as a fast-reacting chemical, does not present a lingering hazard. "When it reacts, it becomes chloride, which is safe — essentially salt — so there's no long-term contamination. Once it's gone, it's gone."
But some groups worry about the experiments' impacts. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, said Utahns should pay close attention to the tests.
"We endorse the intent of the chlorine tests, but given the tragic mistakes and very troubled past of the government's testing of radiation and other toxins in the Great Basin over the last 60 to 70 years, Utahns should maintain a healthy skepticism about the safety of these tests," Moench said, pointing to the 2007 proposal to drop the "Divine Strake" bomb in Nevada.
Dugway was also testing nerve gas in 1968 when thousands of Utah sheep in Tooele County began dying, he said. A 1970 report by Maryland researchers said there was "incontrovertible" evidence that a nerve gas killed the sheep, but the U.S. Army has not acknowledged that the Dugway testing was to blame.
"We think they should release to the public all the data they have to show these chlorine tests would be safe, rather than expecting the public to take their word for it," Moench said.
Nicholson said the tests are being conducted within safety restrictions mandated by the Utah Division of Air Quality, which set wind direction and speed requirements so the gas isn't blown too far away.
We went through a detailed permitting process with them. All the studies show that these releases won't result in an off-site plum, and there's monitoring in place to verify that. And if they do see any concentrations of chlorine in their monitors, they report it to us.
–Marty Gray, division permit manager.
"We went through a detailed permitting process with them," said Marty Gray, division permit manager. "All the studies show that these releases won't result in an off-site plume, and there's monitoring in place to verify that. And if they do see any concentrations of chlorine in their monitors, they report it to us."
Gray said when the testing was proposed last year, air quality officials put the permit up for public comment for 30 days, but no one requested a public hearing.
"We got a few comments on it, but we were able to address them without having to make changes," Gray said.
More tests are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, as long as weather cooperates, Fox said.
There have been several accidents over the past 20 years resulting in chlorine releases in the U.S, according to a Dugway news release.
One of the worst incidents in the country occurred in 2005 when 18 freight cars derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, and about 120,000 pounds of chlorine gas was released. Nine people were killed, about 550 were hospitalized, and at least 1,400 were exposed.
According to the federal government's Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance database, chlorine incidents occur in the U.S. at least once every few days, and one-third of the incidents cause injuries.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero