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Suit Challenges Pentagon Chemical-Weapons Program

Times Staff Writer

A private watchdog organization filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the Defense Department, charging that the Pentagon’s chemical-weapons program is unsafe and that it has failed to comply with environmental reporting requirements.

The suit, brought by the nonprofit Foundation on Economic Trends, seeks to halt the Pentagon’s chemical weapons program by banning research, development, testing, production, deployment or disposal of deadly nerve and blister agents.

In urging such a court-imposed ban, the foundation--which describes itself as a public-interest group that examines the environmental, economic and other effects of trends in technology--released the results of an internal Army safety audit of the chemical program. The audit, dated June, 1988, concluded that “chemical safety has slipped through a crack” in the Army’s bureaucracy and is posing “increased risk” to workers and populations surrounding the nation’s chemical warfare facilities.

‘First Challenge’

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“This lawsuit is the first challenge to the Bush Administration,” said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the foundation. “George Bush has called himself an environmentalist and has said that his main objective is to get a ban on chemical and biological weapons. This case is going to force his Administration to clean up shop, scale down the program and put public safety first.”

The Army, which last year spent almost $220 million to develop and build chemical weapons, is leading the Defense Department’s effort to rebuild the nation’s stockpile of chemical arms and has responsibility for retiring the older weapons. The service, which began producing components for newer chemical weapons in December, 1987, is planning to begin destroying obsolete and unsafe poison gas canisters by September of 1989.

The chemical safety evaluation cited by the foundation, conducted by the Army inspector general’s office, found major shortages in the staffing of the program and criticized its spotty oversight of facilities involved in chemical weapons.

Particular Shortcomings

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The Army safety audit noted particular safety shortcomings in facilities that conduct research on chemical weapons and their effects, as well as at field commands that would handle the lethal agents.

In addition to safety lapses in the storage, transportation and disposal of outdated weapons, there are “major deficiencies in safety” at the laboratory facilities that conduct research on “neat,” or undiluted, poison chemical weapons, the foundation charged. Such facilities are situated in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as in the Menlo Park, Calif., offices of SRI International.

Safety gaps at such facilities include “numerous deficiencies in chemical accident or incident emergency plans, incomplete training programs and records, failure to provide and utilize safety equipment and failure to conduct leak-testing procedures,” according to the foundation’s lawsuit.

The suit also charged that the Pentagon has located chemical storage facilities without consideration for public safety. For instance, the Army’s Rocky Mountain arsenal, where 4.2 million pounds of nerve gas are stored, is near the Denver International Airport, and the Lexington Blue Grass Depot, where 70,000 nerve gas rockets are stored, is near a university, secondary school and shopping mall.

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“What we have here is something comparable to what we’re seeing in the nuclear weapons complex,” Rifkin said. Noting that three civilian chemical weapons managers were recently indicted in Maryland for environmental violations, Rifkin warned: “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”


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