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Army Chemical Incinerator Is Unsafe, 3rd Official Says

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A supervisor at the Army’s chemical weapons incinerator in Utah alleged Tuesday that the plant has been hobbled by a pattern of sloppy environmental practices, including the mishandling of a 2,000-gallon spill of hazardous chemicals and the possible burning of a blister agent without a state permit.

The manager, Trina Allen, who made the allegations in an interview with The Times, is the third supervisor at the Army’s high-technology plant in Tooele, Utah, to allege health, safety and environmental problems during the past two years.

The incinerator is part of the Army’s $30-billion program to clean up and destroy the nation’s stocks of chemical weapons, which are stored at eight Army bases. An additional 200 burial pits across the nation contain chemical weapons, including some in residential neighborhoods and industrial sites.

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In the past two years, other plant executives, including former plant general manager Gary Millar and former safety chief Steven Jones, have alleged the incinerator is unsafe. But Allen’s allegations appear to be the most specific, and her charges are backed up by internal reports, her handwritten personal notes and other documentation. Allen is employed by EG&G;, the contractor that operates the Utah plant for the Army.

Army spokeswoman Marilyn Tischbin confirmed that a toxic spill occurred at the plant last January, but she denied Allen’s allegations that it was not fully cleaned up. The spokeswoman also confirmed Allen’s disclosure that unexpected traces of arsenic, a poison, have been identified in the plant’s waste and cannot be fully explained.

The FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency are looking into Allen’s charges, although no decision has been made about whether to launch a formal investigation.

The issue is highly contentious, because environmental groups are seeking a court order to shut down the incinerator. So far, the Army has rebuffed the critics and only last week obtained approval from the Alabama Legislature for an incinerator at its Anniston Depot.

Among the most technically serious problems cited by Allen involves the arsenic that the Army recently discovered in the plant waste. The plant is licensed to burn GB nerve agent, which is not known to contain arsenic.

Allen alleged that the Army itself suspects that the nerve agent may be contaminated with another chemical weapon known as Lewisite, a World War I-era, arsenic-based blister agent. If true, the Army could be violating its state environmental permits by burning the agent. Tischbin said the Army is not sure of the source of the arsenic and is looking into the matter.

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In the spill last January, Allen said caustic brine that was contaminated with heavy metals leaked onto an asphalt pad and ran into a dirt ditch. When workers found the spill, they had to drive to a nearby laundromat to find a telephone to report it.

A hazardous materials team was sent to the spill but was then withdrawn two hours later to comply with rules that require the team to be at the plant during operations.

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At that point, plant managers dispatched several untrained workers to clean up the spill, including a woman who was nine weeks pregnant, according to notes handwritten by Allen the day after the spill. Tischbin said, however, that the woman did not know she was pregnant until several weeks after the spill.

Martin Reynolds, an EG&G; spokesman, confirmed that Allen was a supervisor at the plant but said in April she was issued a five-day disciplinary suspension and then went on medical leave. Allen says that after she raised safety concerns internally, EG&G; “framed” her by blaming her for errors made on a travel document handled by a subordinate. She has since filed a harassment complaint with the Labor Department.

Craig Williams, of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of local groups opposed to the Army’s incineration program, said Allen’s allegations add further evidence to his group’s conviction that the Utah plant represents a serious public hazard.

“These people operate with no responsibility and no accountability,” Williams said. “Then they go back to Congress every year and ask for another billion dollars.”

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