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Judge tosses chemical weapons incineration suit

The 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 dating back as far as World War II, 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 judge's action has "zero effect" on Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County, said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a watchdog organization in Berea that filed the suit in 2003.

The suit was an attempt to get the same alternative technologies that will be used to destroy chemical weapons at Blue Grass to four other weapons-storage sites around the country, Williams said.

The Army conducted several environmental impact studies comparing different methods of destruction and concluded that incineration was safest and most effective when explosive munitions are involved.

Chemical Weapons Working Group says 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 They say the Army's environmental impact studies are outdated and failed to assess the impact of weapons, such as mustard agents, containing mercury.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 that 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."

Williams said the organization is assessing whether to appeal the ruling, which he said was based on outdated information after six years of litigation.

The four storage sites at issue in the suit are in Pine Bluff, Ark.; Tooele, Utah, Umatilla, Ore.; and Anniston, Ala. At those sites, incinerators heat the agents and their containers at thousands of degrees, then run the exhaust through pollution-removing filters and afterburners.

A separate chemical neutralization process has already been used to break down old munitions at sites in Newport, Ind., and Aberdeen, Md. An additional storage site in Pueblo, Colo., is preparing to use a similar method to dispose of its stockpiles.