TOOELE, Utah -- Here in America's outback, where ravens patrol the sagebrush, the Army has erected a gleaming factory to dismember and destroy a hideous arsenal.
The Tooele Chemical Disposal Facility, the first full-scale plant built in the United States to incinerate chemical weapons, is set to begin operating in February.
A similar factory may be built at Aberdeen Proving Ground northeast of Baltimore, within 15 miles of nearly 300,000 people -- the largest population bordering any U.S. storage site for chemical weapons.
According to the Army's tentative schedule for Aberdeen, construction would start in 1998, and burning would begin in 2001.
Acceptance of incineration is one thing in the vastness of the Utah desert, where the roadside wildlife consists of antelope and golden eagles, and where the small nearby communities are largely dependent on a diminishing military payroll.
Stronger opposition has emerged around Aberdeen and other sites.
The Army calls Tooele a technological masterpiece: the "cleanest" operation of its kind on Earth, a smart bomb to begin the required task of global chemical disarmament.
Critics, though, call it a $1 billion experiment not to be repeated at places like Aberdeen. As with any new, complex technology, they say, parts can fail, people can err and the unexpected usually occurs.
"Nobody has ever done this on the scale that the United States is going to do it," says John Nunn, a Kent County attorney who co-chairs a citizen commission studying weapons disposal at Aberdeen.
"The Army can't say that nothing is going to happen."
Something did happen March 24 at the Army's test incinerator on Johnston Island, 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. A fraction of a pound of the nerve agent GB escaped from the stack. No one was hurt, but even a small accident casts doubt on the incineration program.
From afar, the Tooele plant looks like an ordinary chemical factory. Box-like buildings, black smokestacks and big storage tanks cover 27 acres. But shiny metal sliding boards emerging from the main building indicate the dangerous work that will occur inside. They provide escape routes for workers fleeing an accident involving the lethal chemical agents.
Inside, dozens of workers make adjustments to the miles of pipes and hydraulic lines, inspect "reverse assembly" machines in airtight chambers, and check multicolored computer screens and closed-circuit televisions that will monitor 15,000 working components.
Not far away is the waste the plant will burn: bulk containers of chemicals in a storage yard; rockets, artillery shells and other munitions filled with nerve and mustard agents in 208 earthen bunkers. In all the site houses more than 12,000 tons, the largest U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons.
The path to destruction is mostly automated.
For example, machines in "explosive-containment" rooms will disassemble the munitions and drain them of liquid agents. The liquids, metal containers, explosive innards and packing material to separate furnaces.
A powerful ventilation system will draw air from the less toxic to the more toxic areas, before sending it through a bank of charcoal filters.
Exhaust gases from the furnaces will be cooled, scrubbed of particles and acidic compounds, and sent through fabric filters.
'Congress is watching'
The Army's plan to build as many as seven other incinerators from Alabama to Oregon turns on the performance of the Utah plant.
"Congress is watching. The world is watching," says Veronica Kuras, an Army employee who must ensure the protection of the 400 workers at the Tooele plant and surrounding populations.
The Army says the recent accident at Johnston Island was the second time in four years of operation that lethal agent was released from the plant's smokestack. Workers apparently did not fully purge the agent from a line that leads to the liquid incinerator, which had been shut down for maintenance.
'Zero effect program'
The plant is not allowed to release more than 52 parts of GB per trillion parts of air averaged over an hour. Eighteen times that was detected in the stack initially, then the concentration decreased rapidly, the Army says.
Design changes would prevent a similar release at Tooele or other plants that may be built, the Army says.
Charles Baronian, civilian manager of the Army's chemical weapons disposal program, which is based at Aberdeen, says the effort is "basically a zero defect program. Any amount of agent in the stack is unacceptable."
"It just goes to show that they are far from getting all the bugs worked out," James Harmon, an engineer who is fighting a similar incinerator in Alabama, says of the recent accident.
"Had the Johnston Island leak been worse, and had there been fatalities among workers, this program is dead in the water," says Craig Williams, a Vietnam War veteran fighting the Army's incineration plan.
Mr. Williams is a leader of a diverse corps of people second-guessing the Army at every turn.
Collectively known as the Chemical Weapons Working Group, members are longtime environmental and social activists and hard-core Greenpeace soldiers, as well as homemakers and others who plunged into the technical world of chemical weapons.
The disposal issue has reached a key crossroads -- on Capitol Hill.
The program's expected cost is fast approaching $10 billion -- five times the original estimate -- and citizens are planning a protest march in Anniston, Ala., where the next incinerator is to be built.
This week, the Army will:
* Deliver a report to Congress Tuesday on the cost and feasibility of disposal by methods other than incineration.
* Conduct its largest-ever exercise Wednesday to test emergency procedures that would be used in any accident -- related to storage or disposal -- involving Aberdeen's 50-year-old stockpile of mustard agent.
* Present its fiscal 1995 budget for the chemical disposal program to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. The Army is seeking some $850 million, in part to start building two more incinerators, at Umatilla Army Depot in Oregon and Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas.
The Army already has received the money to build the Anniston, Ala., incinerator, but it cannot start construction until Congress completes a review of the entire disposal program.
In the report to Congress, the Army is not expected to depart radically from the incineration plan but probably will pledge to study alternatives.
Start-up seems certain
The start-up of the Tooele plant seems certain.
Some local elected officials advocate the burning there of chemical weapons from other states, which might keep the plant running for 15 to 20 years and counter the loss of
thousands of jobs elsewhere at the sprawling Tooele depot.
"I think it's ridiculous not to think of it as a viable option," says Leland J. Hogan, a rancher and chairman of the Tooele County commissioners.
In 50 years of storage at Tooele, the Army has demonstrated an ability to handle chemical weapons safely, Mr. Hogan says.
But in recent years, there have been no serious discussions of moving various stockpiles long distances. Though the Army has moved the weapons many times during their existence, the political obstacles today are thought to be too great.
In Utah, the military has had to swim against a tide of mistrust: 50 years of health and environmental controversies involving radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests, and biological and chemical warfare testing.
"There is no reason to believe the Army," says Chip Ward, an environmental activist and library administrator who lives in Grantsville, Utah, about 20 miles from the Tooele plant. "There is an unbroken record here."
Recently, the National Research Council said the overall incineration plan should proceed, but with more safeguards such as adding charcoal filters on smokestacks and evaluating the "latent" risks of incineration. The council also said the Army needs to improve alarm systems, do a better job of monitoring exhaust gases, and should consider neutralization of chemicals stored in bulk at Aberdeen and an Indiana site.
Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the Army incinerators will contain the most up-to-date safety controls available.
The agency has begun a major overhaul of rules governing hazardous waste burning. But it has exempted the Army's planned incinerators from that process, saying continued long-term storage of chemical weapons poses more serious risks.
The Army says nearly 1,500 leaks of agents were detected during storage nationwide between 1982 and 1992, though it says there were no serious injuries during that time. It fears more serious leaks -- even spontaneous explosions -- as the weapons deteriorate.
G; Nationwide, the cost of storage is $100 million a year.
Still, intense disagreement over incineration's safety continues.
"It is a proven technology," says Dr. Morton Lippman, an adviser to the EPA. He specializes in air toxicology and is a professor of environmental management at New York University's Medical Center.
With the proper "peer review" of operating procedures, Dr. Lippman says, the Army's plan can work. "It can be done safely."
But Paul Connett, who has helped the environmental group Greenpeace study chemical weapons burning, calls incineration a "blunt instrument."
Its long-term effects are not understood, says Dr. Connett, an associate professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in New York.
"It doesn't get rid of anything, it just transforms it into other compounds," says Mr. Nunn, the Kent County attorney. "It is really not a destruction technology, but a dispersal technology."
Critics worry about small amounts of pollutants, including many unknown compounds they say will be created during burning, getting into the food chain.
They think the Army's plan is a backdoor way of constructing a nationwide network of incinerators to burn hundreds of tons of chemical waste being unearthed at military installations and produced at defense laboratories and other operations.
At Aberdeen alone last year, the Army generated more than 17,000 tons of potentially hazardous waste from research, weapons testing and environmental cleanup. It was sent to a dozen disposal sites across the country, most of them conventional incinerators.
'Nothing has been easy'
The Chemical Weapons Working Group recently proposed disassembly of the weapons and neutralization of the liquid agents as a safer alternative that will satisfy disarmament accords.
Army officials counter that there is no proven method of disposal other than incineration -- at least not on the scale needed and in time to meet the disarmament deadline, now set at 2005.
"To have an alternative in one's pocket may be a smart policy," says Mr. Baronian, the Army's disposal program manager.
In recent letters to Army Secretary Togo West, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, both Democrats, said neutralization merits serious consideration and should be pursued aggressively.
"Nothing has been easy with this program," says Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican representing Maryland's 2nd District, which includes Aberdeen.
"This thing has been pending for 10 years, for God's sake. At some point, we've got to say, 'Let's get on with it.' "