News that the start of incineration operations would be delayed at least a week was a bit disappointing because we're eager to begin destroying aging and dangerous chemical weapons that never should have been created in the first place. But it wasn't disheartening. In fact, the delay should be reassuring to supporters and critics alike of incineration at the Umatilla Chemical Depot. It shows Washington Demilitarization, the company operating the incineration complex, and the Army are intent on living up to their promise that incineration operations will not move forward unless all systems are working flawlessly.
The start of operations was delayed after a trace amount of vapor from industrial chemicals used as surrogates for nerve agent during testing was detected in the plant's air filter system. The alarm triggered was within the heating and ventilation system of the plant, not within the pollution abatement system that collects and cleans emissions from the furnaces that will burn the weapons and the chemical agent. The heating and ventilation system collects air from both agent-contaminated rooms in the plant and from the rooms where employees are working. The air, which is expected to have some contamination, then goes through a set of filters. The alarm that went off was between the first and second stage of the six-part filter system, officials said.
It's important to note that had it been actual chemical agent instead of a surrogate, the Department of Environmental Quality said it would not have caused harm to the environment because of its early detection in the system. Nor would workers have ever been at risk. But it was an abnormality that clearly needs to be investigated and resolved before destruction of chemical weapons begins.
"As we emphasize with our employees, the project's philosophy is to stop work at any time when issues surface that need to be resolved," Army Site Manager Don Barclay said of the incident.
That's exactly what the public should expect, and this incident shows that mindset is firmly in place.
The incident also provides a teaching moment for the communities around the depot. Alarms and stoppages are going to be common even after the incineration process is rolling. That's the way the system is designed, thank goodness, and it's not cause for alarm. The lesson from the incineration operations at Tooele, Utah, and Anniston, Ala., is that once operations begin it's not a seamless process that rolls on uninterrupted. There will be fits and stops and starts. But that's what insures the safety of workers, the public and the environment - incineration does not proceed until all systems are "go."
The other lesson from Tooele and Anniston is that incineration can be done safely and effectively. The Umatilla Chemical Depot is just days away from proving that again.