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Critics Say Pentagon Admits Neutralization Works

July 3, 2008

By Matthew D. LaPlante, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 3–For years, the military has insisted that there is no safer way to destroy its chemical weapons than the incineration process used at the Deseret Chemical Depot.

But when the Pentagon floated the idea of moving more chemical weapons to Utah in a report last month, it noted that the increased workload would require increased capacity. And to meet that need it suggested another way to destroy the deadly agents: a process known as neutralization.

Critics seized on the report as an “inadvertent acknowledgement” that the Army should be using neutralization — a process by which dangerous chemicals are separated and eliminated using hot water.

“What they’re saying is that the more agent we have to destroy, the more we need to go in that direction,” said Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, which has long argued that neutralization — which was used in Maryland to successfully dispose of tons of mustard agent — is preferable to incineration.

Advocates say that chemicals separated out via the neutralization process can be tested and retested before being released to the environment, while chemicals released through the incineration process can only be checked by smokestack monitors — by which time it’s too late to fix problems if something goes wrong.

Williams said that if neutralization and incineration were equal in safety and cost — as the military has long claimed — there would be no reason to introduce an entirely new system to Utah, which already has more than a decade of expertise and experience in burning. “This is an inadvertent admission by the Pentagon that clearly states that neutralization is viable and preferable,” Williams said.

Chris Thomas, of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said he was stunned by the Pentagon’s report, particularly as his group has been trying for the past year to simply get Army officials to sit down and talk about the benefits of neutralization over incineration. “Now, this looks like an admission that neutralization is a serious, feasible and cost-effective option,” he said.

Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib disagreed. “This not an acknowledgement of neutralization being safer,” he said. “It was a proposal based on success at the Aberdeen, Maryland site — one that used neutralization technology to safely destroy over 1,800 ton containers filled with mustard chemical agent.”

mlaplante@sltrib.com

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