UMATILLA - A coalition of environmental groups in several states filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday aimed at forcing the Army to consider alternatives to incineration for disposal of its chemical weapons stockpile.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says the Army never gave serious consideration to alternative means of destroying chemical agent and hasn't considered the health and environmental effects. It seeks to stop plans for burning chemical agent stored at Army bases in Alabama, Arkansas, Utah and the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston.
The coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, the Oregon Toxics Alliance, the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, and GASP, a Hermiston-based anti-incineration group, represents communities near Army bases in four states where chemical weapons are stored.
The plaintiffs want to halt any new spending on construction or operation of incinerators until the Army complies with national Environmental Protection Act requirements for reviewing and updating its plans for destruction of the chemicals. The lawsuit says that because emissions from incinerators at Johnston Island and at Toole, Utah, contained far greater amounts of toxic chemicals than predicted, the Army must reconsider alternatives to incineration.
The new lawsuit was filed just one day after a lawsuit filed by Oregon-based opponents of incineration resumed in Multnomah County Circuit Court. That lawsuit, filed by GASP along with two statewide environmental groups and 22 individual petitioners, seeks to force the state Department of Environmental Quality to revoke the Army's incineration permit.
The case, which was continued from last fall, could be continued again to August if a decision isn't reached by the end of March. The plaintiffs already have presented their side of the case. This week, the court is hearing testimony from witnesses for the Army. The Oregon lawsuit is the third in five years to be filed by GASP over the Army's incineration permit. The judge ruled against the plaintiffs in the first two cases.
GASP spokeswoman Karyn Jones of Hermiston said both lawsuits seek to stop incineration in favor of alternative technologies for the destruction of chemical agent. The plantiffs' favored alternative is neutralization, which uses water to render the agents inert.
"No one knows what the long-term health effects will be," said Jones. "We still think we should have been considered for an alternative technology."
GASP and other opponents of the Army's incineration plans say the process introduces contaminants such as dioxin, arsenic and lead into the environment, increasing the risk to public health and the environment. The Army contends that emissions released from the stacks will be 99.9 percent free of contaminants, and notes that alternative technologies are still being tested and don't work well on all chemicals, including some stored at Umatilla.
Testing of incinerators at the Umatilla Chemical Depot is expected to be completed later this year, and the Army could begin burning agent by early fall.