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Is Utah a Pawn in Pentagon Gambit?

July 3, 2008

By Matthew D. LaPlante, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 3–Although Army officials acknowledge it’s a political non-starter, the Defense Department has resurrected the idea of transporting chemical weapons from Colorado and Oregon to Utah — a practice that has been widely opposed in the past and which is now prohibited by federal law.

The state-to-state transfers are one of three “options” the Pentagon has offered to get a long-delayed destruction schedule onto a faster track.

But some familiar with the process say the Pentagon only has one option in mind. It wants more money for chemical-agent destruction efforts in Colorado and Kentucky — and may be using the specter of cross-border weapons exchanges to drum up congressional support for increased funding of current operations.

The U.S. was supposed to have destroyed its chemical stockpiles by 2007. American officials have since received a postponement to 2012 of that treaty-imposed deadline, and have asked for a further extension to 2017. But defense officials say they aren’t likely to meet that date, either — not unless the program gets more money, that is.

Earlier this year, Congress ordered the military “to identify options to accelerate destruction of the remaining chemical weapons stockpile.” The resulting report, released last month, suggests that transporting “portions of the stockpile to operational destruction facilities,” including Tooele County’s Deseret Chemical Depot, is one option for speeding the process along in a way that might get the U.S. close to its 2017 goal. Similar suggestions, in the past, have been met with broad bipartisan opposition. And Wednesday, politicians from both sides of the aisle were quick to object to the plan.

“Federal law says that transporting chemical weapons across state lines is prohibited,” said Rep. Jim Matheson, whose words were echoed by fellow Congressman Chris Cannon and Sen. Bob Bennett. “The aging weapons have been known to leak, and transporting them poses a safety risk to communities along the route as well as to the workers who would handle them at either end.”

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he wouldn’t permit the transfer. “Under no circumstances would I ever allow this to take place in our state,” he said.

That may be just the reaction the Defense Department is looking for.

The U.S. Army’s Chemical Materials Agency spokesman Greg Mahall acknowledged that that state-to-state transport of weapons such as mustard agent “is next to impossible in the current political climate.” And setting aside a stick-to-the-status-quo suggestion that would push the end of the program as far back as 2027, that leaves just one option that is responsive to Congress’ order: more money.

That plan — known as “Option 3″ — would increase staffing at destruction sites in Colorado and Kentucky, include the construction of additional facilities in those locations and set a schedule that would keep things moving “24 hours per day at seven days per week.” All at an increased cost, of course.

“The only option being pursued is Option 3,” said Kevin Flamm, program manager of the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives U.S. Army Element.

Flamm insisted that the suggestion to move weapons across state lines “was not there to be inflammatory,” noting that the transportation of chemical agents has been discussed throughout the life of the program.

Setting aside political mountains, Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib declined to say whether the military believes that transport across state lines could even be conducted safely. “That’s conjecture,” he said. “But the thing to bear in mind is that we’ve been doing this destruction since 1990, and we’ve been doing it safely.”

Those explanations don’t satisfy Craig Williams. He said the military shouldn’t have wasted time looking into an option that is illegal.

“It begs the question, ‘If it is illegal, why spend taxpayer’s dollars even studying it?’ ” said Williams, the director of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group.

Nonetheless, Williams said he supports the plan. He’s long argued that safely disposing of the nation’s chemical weapons in the most expeditious way possible would be cheaper in the long run. And he said getting rid of the weapons as close to 2017 as possible, though costlier up front, would save the country billions of dollars in the long run.

mlaplante@sltrib.com

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