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A Cloud Over My Hometown.

They are burning chemical weapons in the valley where I grew up

The sun strikes my eyes at precisely the same moment the siren strikes my ears. As a child, I listened for a siren every weekday morning at 7:30, which notified workers at the Tooele Army Depot two miles away that they should be at their desks and ready to pick up their pencils. In those days, my mother was one of thousands of workers responding to the siren. The only sign of her in my morning was a hurriedly scribbled list of tasks I was to complete before the siren blew again at 4:30 P.M.

The depot officially closed in 1993, and the siren I hear now is not the one I grew up with. When this siren ends, a serious voice comes out of the heat of the encroaching sun, telling me I have just been warned. Had this been a real emergency, the voice says, I should have turned on my television or radio. This is enough to get me up and into the kitchen, where my mother, now retired, whips pancake batter.

When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them Tooele, Utah. I used to be able to count on a puzzled look. I liked the anonymity. But on August 22,1996, the federal government began the controversial operation of incinerating chemical weapons stockpiles. Since then, Tooele has graced the front pages of newspapers as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C. Many people have now heard of Tooele, but the town they envision is nothing like the town of my memory. The town they've read about is a chemical wasteland. The town I remember is filled with curbed and gutter-lined streets, smooth sidewalks perfect for roller-skating, and flower beds where irises and roses sprout from rich, dark dirt. I'm no longer sure which description is accurate.

The warning sirens--there are thirty-seven total--were put in place when the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility began the incineration process. County officials have several prerecorded messages ready to follow the siren in the case of a real emergency: "Go inside. Stay indoors. Close all windows and doors. Turn off all heating and air conditioners." Or: "Evacuate. Evacuation is required for your safety. Evacuate quickly and calmly north toward Interstate 80." There are three more variations to this message, depending on the wind's direction: "Evacuate south toward Eureka," "east toward Lehi," or "west toward Dugway."

My father, a retired schoolteacher and part-time rancher, comes into the kitchen and nudges my mother as she scoops batter onto the sizzling griddle.

"This could be it," he jokes over the garbled prerecorded message that blasts through the open windows. "This could be the big one. Better grab your gas mask."

"Umm-hmm," my mother replies, pushing him away with her elbow.

"Too bad we don't keep extra gas masks for visitors," my father says, eyeing me.

"What would you do if this were not just a warning?" I ask my father. He looks at me, laughs, and leaves the room as if the possibility were so remote as to render my words silly. I look at my mother. She shrugs. I persist.

"Do you have gas masks?" I ask.

"Heavens no!" she responds, as if I should know better.

"Why don't you do something?" I ask.

"What?" she asks me in return.

Since the 1940s, the federal government has been stockpiling chemical weapons in Tooele County. Before the incineration process began, the American people were the proud owners of about 12.5 million pounds of blister agent (mustard gas), about twelve million pounds of GB nerve agent (also called sarin gas), and about 2.7 million pounds of VX nerve agent stored in cartridges, ton containers, projectiles, rockets, and bombs buried in my backyard--the largest stockpile in the nation. Since 1996, about 28 percent of the stockpile has gone up in smoke.

When GB nerve agent is inhaled, a dose equal to the size of Washington's eye on a quarter can cause hyper-excretion of fluids from the eyes, nose, and mouth, involuntary urination, muscle spasms, convulsions, and eventually death. VX nerve agent, most hazardous when absorbed through the skin, interferes with the signals sent from the brain to the body's vital organs. If VX enters the body, convulsions and death can result. Mustard gas causes inflammation of the eyes, nose, throat, trachea, bronchi, and lung tissue, and blisters the skin. It can also be lethal.

But the controversy goes beyond the possibility of a major nerve gas spill. Being exposed over a long period of time to incinerator dioxins released into the air or accumulating in the food chain could result in cancer, immune system damage, reproductive problems, and birth defects. The Army reassures Tooele residents that the dioxins released through the incinerator's stacks are well below EPA acceptable safety levels. But because incineration of chemical weapons has never before been done in a populated area, no one really knows what the long-term effects will be.

Many agree that the destruction of chemical weapons is a good thing, especially since some of the containers that hold them are leaking. In Tooele County, 1,798 so-called leakers have been detected since 1967. News of leaks found in stored rockets, bombs, and projectiles is now so common that it no longer sparks a front-page story in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin. Leaks are now relegated to one paragraph in the Page 2 NEWS BRIEFS section and followed by the same disclaimer: "There was no danger to workers, the community, or the environment, according to a Desert Chemical press release."

The Army likes to point out that incinerating the weapons is far safer than continued storage of them. But according to watchdog groups like the Sierra Club and the Salt Lake City-based Families Against Incinerator Risk, there are safer ways to destroy stockpiled chemical weapons--for instance, through the use of chemical neutralizers. The government stands firm that there has never been a "detectable emission" of a chemical agent into the environment from the Tooele facility.

Meanwhile, my neighbors and my old friends in Tooele are sipping coffee at the Glowing Embers Restaurant and shooting pool at Red's, same as always.

When I was young, I used to ride my bike two miles along the railroad tracks that split my street in half. I would go to the municipal swimming pool, stopping under shade trees in whatever yard looked most inviting. If I continued up the tracks for another two blocks, I could get a twenty-five-cent brown bag of penny candy selected one at a time from the rows against the back wall of Bevan's Drugstore. For another quarter, I could skid a wire-backed bar stool with a wooden seat across the tiny octagonal floor tiles, slide onto it, and get a soda made with some mysterious substance called ironport. I'd then travel on down Main Street to the Ritz Showhouse, get myself a Jolly Rancher sour apple stick, and watch the matinee.

At the Tooele County Fair, I scrubbed the white face of my fat red steer, ratted his white tail hairs into a perfect ball, sprayed it with my mother's AquaNet, and led him into the ring hoping for the purple grand-prize ribbon.

My family also attended the Tooele Army Depot open house every year. On this day, the guards at the two entrance gates, normally posted to keep people out, welcomed the proud Tooele community into the fenced-off restricted area. If, however, you were to wander too far beyond the celebratory zone, you would be escorted back to the confines of the open house. The truly prohibited territory was known simply to us kids as "ammo." Because it was forbidden, it seemed mysterious and wondrous to us. It would take years for the true meaning of the word "ammo" to crystallize in my mind.

When I was seven, I stood in the long line for the only ride offered--in a tank. My sister stood behind me, sweaty hands gripping my shoulders. The uniformed man waved me forward, saying, "We have room for one more," and my big sister nudged me forward. I hesitantly entered the dark stomach of the tank without her. The heavy, round lid clanked shut over the top of my head. The ride consisted of five minutes of jouncing and boiling in a black pot that must have reached 100 degrees or more. By the time the lid came off and a kind stranger hefted me out into the daylight, I was gasping for breath. My sister quickly sidestepped the line, snatched my hand, and pulled me to the snow-cone booth.

Every Fourth of July my father would drive us up and down Main Street before backing into the perfect parking place from which to view the parade. Church and civic group rounded up their members to build floats. The farmers were called upon to loan their hay wagons, and the local stores would sell out of chicken wire, dinner napkins, and spray paint--all the necessities to build a floating replica of the American flag. Nestled among the floats, the marching band, and the Bit `n' Spur Riding Club was every imaginable kind of military hardware on wheels. Perched on the hood of our car, we cheered and waved our miniature American flags-on-a-stick and shot our cap guns as each tank rumbled by, flanked front and rear by puffy floats carrying smiling, waving young beauties throwing salt-water taffy to the kids who ran alongside.

This display of American military power gliding between the lines of flag-waving townsfolk seemed quite normal to me at the time--nothing other than average rural American patriotism. But in my town, patriotism had an extra element. Before the bases closed in 1993, there were few families in Tooele who did not have at least one member employed by the federal government.

The incinerator sits about twelve miles from my childhood home east toward Lehi. I borrow my parents' Oldsmobile and head out to take a look. After a few miles on a dirt road, I slide to a stop next to a weathered sign telling me the place "has been declared a restricted area by authority of the depot commander in accordance with the provisions of the directive issued by the Secretary of the Defense. Unauthorized entry is prohibited."

The faded lettering tells me the sign is a remnant of the old days when the depot was fully staffed. The gate across the road is open, so I drive on. As expected, I soon reach a point where I can go no farther. Ahead sits a guard gate next to a red brick structure, which appears to be a visitor's center. From a rusted metal box hanging on the locked door, I grab a brochure, which reads: "The Chemical Agent Disposal Facility is pleased to announce Saturday tours; neighbors should get to know each other!" The guard informs me that no visitors are allowed beyond this point.

But what about Saturday tours?

Too late. The tours took place before they started operations.

The wind is a constant element across this plain, and today is no different. In fact, out here, not much of anything has changed. The federal government has been putting up fences and warning signs to keep people out of certain areas of Tooele County for more than fifty years. I start to drive back, but I stop again just past the faded sign. Although I can't get close, I want to take a look at the incinerator. I squeeze between two strands of barbed wire, mash down some blowing weeds for a cushion to sit on, and pull my binoculars out of my jacket pocket. White smoke rises from the stack against the backdrop of the green hills of Rush Valley and the jagged lavender mountains behind it. As teenagers we used to drive out to those hills with a case of Coors, knowing we could light a bonfire and drink all night without getting caught. We were oblivious to the nearby darkened mounds of chemical-filled igloos.

My brother's house sits about a dozen miles straight west of here. He's not home. Like me, he's inside the restricted area. Unlike me, he's "authorized." For more than fifteen years, he has been a worker at Tooele Army Depot's south area, the current site of the incinerator and the former site of the Army's previous disposal unit, which operated from 1979 to 1996. His official title is Chemical Plant Operator Leader.

"What exactly do you do out there?" I once asked.

"Why do you want to know?"

"I'm writing an article on people with unusual jobs." (This was true at the time.)

"Can I interview you?"


"Come on. I won't even use your name."


"It probably won't ever be published."



"We're really not supposed to talk about it."

My brother makes a decent living to support himself, his wife, and their three children. He knows he can put food on his table and tuck his children into warm, soft beds tonight, tomorrow night, and the next night. In exchange for this security, my brother has been fitted for a rubberized protective suit and a gas mask, he knows how to self-inject antidote in case of exposure, and he regularly offers body fluids and undergoes other types of testing of his nervous system. He considers himself one of the lucky ones. When the depot officially closed, many of his buddies lost their jobs. He got a job at the incinerator.

I question my brother about his ideas of "security." He says, "not this again," and leaves the room. He thinks I can never understand. I am an outsider now.

As a child, my brother dreamed of being a cowboy, of owning his own land, where soft breezes blow over grazing cattle, where horses snort and play in corrals. He has acquired a small piece of his dream. His house sits smack in the middle of his own seventy-five-acre spread. A couple of horses stand in the corral, and over the years, first one cow, then two, then several began roaming his fields.

From 1945 to 1968, the Army conducted open-air field tests of nerve gas agents in Tooele County. On March 14, 1968, when I was eleven years old, a sheepherder drove out to his range to find 6,400 sheep in convulsions or already dead. The Army initially said the sheep had died from common insecticides, although its own investigation suggested otherwise. It showed that on the day before, a low-flying jet fighter sprayed nerve agent on a barren target. However, a malfunction caused a canister to remain open, allowing nerve gas to be distributed beyond the target area.

Although it has since compensated the sheepherders for their losses, the Army still says the evidence about the sheep deaths is inconclusive. However, a 1970 report, which was initially marked confidential, concludes that VX nerve agent was found in the snow and grass the sheep were eating and that the quantity present was "possibly" sufficient to account for the deaths. The report, which was declassified in 1978, was reclassified confidential in June 1999 after it received a fair amount of local publicity during an attempt by watchdog groups to stop the incineration process.

The dead sheep prompted the first bit of anti-government discourse I remember hearing in my house. My father's father was a sheepherder, and my father was angered by the government's actions and excuses. But after a short while, the anger subsided. My friends and I discussed the dead sheep but quickly moved on. The incident passed in and out of my life with scant consideration.

But now I often think about what has been blowing in the wind around here, and I wonder what tiny seed of destruction I might be carrying in my bones, lying dormant, waiting for the right opportunity to bloom. My sister has been diagnosed with skin cancer, and my mother suffers from an autoimmune disorder. Of course, no causal link has been proven. Numerous studies have been done, many contradicting others, but several showing unusually high levels of cancer in Tooele County. The local paper runs editorials warning people to "avoid cancer paranoia."

Before the incinerator started operations, a meeting was held at the Tooele courthouse. Although an Army analysis concluded that an accident here could kill about 30,000 people--pretty much all of Tooele and the surrounding rural communities--only fifty residents showed up to express their fears. The local paper called it "a citizen outcry for health concerns." The Sierra Club, which has protested the incinerator's operations from the beginning, has been able to attract only a few members from Tooele County, leaving the local chapter frustrated by what it perceives as apathy on the part of Tooele residents.

But attributing the lack of outrage to apathy is simplistic. When my parents moved to Tooele in 1951, they placed their trust in our military to keep them safe from the perceived looming threat of communism. And residents of Tooele had an opportunity to be a part of the mission. At its height of operations, Tooele Army Depot employed close to 6,000 people, most of them Tooele residents, and Dugway Proving Grounds employed about another 1,300. In addition to its patriotic benefits, each job carried the American trophy: security.

Anti-incinerator groups have accused folks like my father of ignorance, of too easily accepting the government's assurances. A Sierra Club representative called Tooele residents "brainwashed." It's easy to arrive at this conclusion. There very likely is some remnant of underlying loyalty to the government, which still provides many Tooele residents with a monthly retirement check and a few with full-time jobs. But the residents of Tooele County are no more guilty of ignorance and apathy than any other U.S. citizens who went about their business while their government created and stockpiled millions of pounds of devastating chemicals.

Most residents of Tooele County have shared their neighborhood with M55 rockets filled with poison every day of their lives. Maybe they are not jumping up to join the ranks of protesters simply because they are sick of being surrounded by nerve gas and mustard agent and are elated to see it go up in smoke, whatever the danger. The residents of this town have always lived with risk. For once, maybe the risk makes sense. For once, it is associated with the destruction, not the creation, of chemical weapons.

I think the residents of Tooele know with absolute certainty that a deadly accident could occur at the incinerator at any time. I think they also understand the possible health effects of incinerator emissions. So why not leave like so many of us have? Why not gather the kids and take the family out of harm's way? Why stay in Tooele? Maybe because there are gardens to be tended, animals to be fed, and graves to be visited. There are softball games in the park and cookouts in the canyon. And there's that little piece of land you used to play on when you were a kid that's just come up for sale. Home is not so easily transported. Those of us who have left can attest to that.

The incinerator, with its proud plume of White smoke, fenced and guarded, symbolizes the threat of destruction that surrounded me as a child and still surrounds my family. It also symbolizes a faceless entity that enabled my parents to give me a shiny new bicycle on my seventh birthday and a life filled with Easter egg hunts, county fairs, and Fourth of July parades.

The wind whips strands of hair across my face, and I slap at them impatiently. When I was twenty and typed for a living at Tooele Army Depot, we used to have a saying about the wind that blew steadily across this valley. "It's not that the wind blows all the time; it's just that the whole place sucks." We were wrong. It took leaving and coming back to see it. In spite of all that lurks beneath the ground here, in spite of the danger that might travel through the air, I'm now almost paralyzed with the beauty of the valley. The sagebrush cavorts in the wind with the blue and yellow wildflowers; the jutting purple and gray mountains embrace the gentle grass-green valley below; horses whinny at the oncoming storm carried by the pearl-gray clouds; and a mother cow moans for her calf. This is my home.

The national attention given to Tooele has forced me to acknowledge what lay buried in the ground around my home and buried in my mind. As the government workers dig through the igloos and unearth chemical weapons, I'm forced to dig through my memories. I'm sad that I can never again look back on my childhood with the same carefree attitude that allowed me to laugh and skip down the shady streets of my town. I'm sad that I can never again sit along a parade route and cheer the rumble of the oncoming tank. I'm sad that the safety and security I felt as a child now rings false, and I carry that falseness with me in adulthood.

Do I want them to stop destroying chemical weapons? No, not really. But I want someone, somewhere to own up to this mess. I want my federal government to say that it was wrong to produce these hideous instruments of murder. I want someone to say "we screwed up" and to offer an apology to the people of Tooele County. I want my government to come clean. I want the Army to take full responsibility for 6,400 dead sheep. I want it to guarantee, without qualifications, without double talk, that it is destroying the remaining weapons in the safest way without regard to the $650 million incinerator construction price tag, and I want to be able to believe a government guarantee for maybe the first time in my adult life. If it cannot do that, I want the incinerator shut down. I want no more dirty little secrets. I want my brother to speak freely about his job without fear of repercussion. I want my government, including the military branch, to stop acting as an entity separate from the American people. I want my government to show respect.

I want to believe that the rising smoke marks the beginning of an era--one devoid of the hatred, arrogance, and paranoia that drove us to create the chemicals that lie buried, seeping and leaking, in this field all around me. I want to know how to find hope here. Stiffly, I brush myself off, slip back through two strands of barbed wire, and head home to see if there are any pancakes left.

Jana Richman is a writer in Tucson, Arizona.
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Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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