Deseret Chemical Depot Shuts Down for Third Time

Deseret Chemical Depot Shuts Down for Third Time

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Deseret Chemical Depot shut down its operations Saturday for the third time since it resumed destroying chemical weapons on March 28.

Depot officials say such closures are expected while the incinerator is adjusted to burn a weapons containing the nerve agent VX.

However, regulators and watchdogs say even the smallest release of chemical agents -- the main reason the operations are stopped -- should not be considered routine.

On Saturday, alarms sounded at the depot inside an observation corridor, officials said. There were no workers in the corridor at the time of the alarms, appropriate safety measures were taken and destruction of the chemicals was suspended, a news release said.

It was the third time alarms have been activated since the depot resumed operations after a maintenance worker was exposed last July to residual amounts of sarin nerve agent.

Two of those three recent shutdowns involved what is called a "chemical event," or a detectable release of chemical agent, said depot spokesman Chuck Sprague.

"There was no threat to anyone's health or to the environment in these instances. (But) any time any agent gets out of where it's supposed to be is a concern to us," said Dennis Downs, spokesman for the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste.

The division is partially responsible for regulating and monitoring the depot. Officials from the division are supervising activities there nearly every day, Downs said.

He said an official from their department happened to be at the depot Saturday on a routine visit when the plant was shut down.

Downs said the leak was so minor that if someone had been in the corridor it would be unlikely they would have any reaction to the chemicals.

"The high level of safety that is implemented ... makes it so even if something does happen there's not any kind of catastrophic event," he said.

Any kind of leak is unacceptable, Downs said. However, to have these kinds of shutdowns during the "ramping-up" process "is not totally unexpected," he said.

The depot's incinerator is gradually resuming operation so that every precaution can be taken, Downs said.

How the depot functions during this process will determine at what pace the facility can dispose of the 1,300 tons of VX agent. The nerve agent is more toxic but less volatile than sarin. It is contained in mines, warheads and aircraft tanks designed to spray a deadly mist.

The depot has already destroyed one class of weapon, the sarin filled M-55 rocket. Following VX disposal, the incinerator will turn to 6,100 tons of mustard gas.

The Deseret Chemical Depot, Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, located 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, began destroying the nation's largest stockpile of chemical weapons in 1996 and hopes to finish the job by 2005.

"We were down for a total of nine months. We're slowly and methodically ramping up our production, as issues come up we might stop our operations again," said Sprague.

"We expect to be in full production but never at the expense of safety," he said.

Sprague said the cause of the leak was not known as of Tuesday and operations were still shut down.

Craig Williams, spokesman for chemical incinerator watchdog the Chemical Weapons Working Group, says the continual shutdowns highlight that the facilities can't operate as advertised.

"To say that's to be expected is basically an admission that no matter how much time you spend trying to correct the problems with this kind of operation there are still problems ... that we can anticipate multiple shutdowns. It's not a confidence builder," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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