The U.S. Army on Wednesday won a court challenge to its plan to incinerate chemical weapons at storage sites around the country, over objections from a watchdog group that says the practice releases toxic pollution.
A federal judge threw out the suit, aimed at stopping the plan to destroy the stockpiles, which date back as far as World War II. The plan was required under an international treaty, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. More than half the United States' aging cache of 31,500 tons of nerve agents and mustard gas has been destroyed so far, with a 2017 congressional deadline for completion.
The Army conducted several environmental impact studies comparing different methods of destruction and concluded that incineration was the most safe and effective when explosive munitions are involved.
A watchdog organization called the Chemical Weapons Working Group, based in Berea, Ky., sued in 2003, arguing there are new alternative technologies for destruction. They say the Army's environmental impact studies are outdated and failed to assess the impact of weapons, such as mustard agents, containing mercury.
The group asked that new studies be required, but U.S. District Judge Richard Eaton ruled Wednesday the group did not prove that "alternatives to incineration are readily available and capable of destroying the quantity and type of chemical warfare agents and munitions at the challenged sites."
Chemical Weapons Working Group Director Craig Williams said the organization is assessing whether to appeal the ruling, which he said was based on outdated information after six years of litigation.
"There's no question in our mind that there are alternatives out there that are less emissive of toxic pollution and that those options should be considered for all the communities," he said.
The four storage sites at issue in the suit were in Pine Bluff, Ark., Tooele, Utah, Umatilla, Ore., and Anniston, Ala. — all of which contain chemical agents in one-ton steel containers as well as rockets, artillery shells and other explosive munitions. At those sites, incinerators heat the agents and their containers at thousands of degrees, then run the exhaust through pollution-removing filters and afterburners.
U.S. stockpiles of chemical agents are also destroyed in Aberdeen, Md., Blue Grass, Ky., Newport, Ind., and Pueblo, Colo., but those four sites only contain the chemical agents in the steel containers. The Army says it uses alternative destruction techniques at those sites, such as chemical neutralization in Aberdeen, because they don't have assembled chemical weapons containing energetics or propellants.