The U.S. Army, rejecting the vocal opposition of communities surrounding eight of the service's major installations, will burn thousands of tons of outdated chemical weapons at the eight sites where the deadly munitions now are stored, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
In choosing to destroy the weapons at their current storage depots, Army Undersecretary James R. Ambrose rejected options that would have required the weapons, which are no longer considered safe, to be shipped by truck, train, plane or barge through as many as 20 states, including California.
Ambrose argued that the shipment of the lethal nerve and blister agents across public transportation routes would risk catastrophic accidents, terrorist attacks and hazards to Army personnel handling the weapons.
Court Battles Expected
The decision is expected to be fought in state and federal courts by residents from the areas surrounding the eight proposed destruction sites. Community groups voiced their objections to the Army's weapons destruction proposal in two months of often emotional public debate.
"Some people have told me they'll sue me either way," said Ambrose, who had the final word in making the controversial decision. "If faced with litigation, we'll seek to get it resolved as quickly as possible."
In November, 1985, Congress directed the Army to destroy by 1994 the nation's obsolete stockpile of chemical weapons, a collection of rockets, mines and bombs that dates partly from World War II.
Ambrose said the service will need an extension of two to three years to accomplish the task by building eight incineration facilities, an undertaking that he estimated will cost as much as $2.5 billion.
California Route Rejected
In two of the options rejected by Ambrose, the Army considered transporting some of the chemical weapons by rail across northeastern California, en route from Oregon to Utah. The alternatives would have established Tooele Army Depot in Tooele, Utah, either as a single national destruction center for chemical weapons or as one of two regional centers.
The Army installations that are to house the operations are spread over eight states. They are Tooele Army Depot; Umatilla Depot Activity in Umatilla, Ore.; Pine Bluff Arsenal in Pine Bluff, Ark.; Pueblo Depot Activity in Pueblo, Colo.; Newport Army Ammunition Plant in Newport, Ind.; Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md.; Lexington Blue Grass Army Depot in Lexington, Ky., and Anniston Army Depot in Anniston, Ala.
In all, published reports have estimated the volume of weapons to be burned at between 25,000 and 40,000 tons. The weapons incapacitate or kill humans by burning flesh or by interrupting the normal functioning of the nervous system.
The chemical munitions are of a different design than those now in development and production as part of the Reagan Administration's effort to modernize the nation's arsenal of chemical weapons. In December, 1986, the United States began to build binary chemical weapons, which are considered safer to store because the chemical agents in each of the weapons are contained in two chambers and are harmless until combined.
As part of its binary weapons program, the Army has begun producing a short-range artillery projectile and is developing a medium-range rocket. Production is to begin soon on the Bigeye bomb, a chemical weapon that President Reagan has certified as vital to the nation's defense.
The United States and Soviet Union, meanwhile, are negotiating a ban on chemical weapons in Geneva.