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Tooele Army Depot, Utah

The Tooele Army Depot is in Tooele County, Utah, just thirty minutes southwest of Salt Lake City. It was created in 1942 during the early stages of the American participation to World War II, serving as a repository for biological and chemical weapons. Since August 1996, its primary role has been the destruction of weapons such as nerve gas and rockets, in hopes of eliminating the threat they pose.

The hazardous chemicals and weapons are fed into a furnace, and the discharged vapors are sent through several layers of filtration before being released into the open air. Before the incinerator was built, trenches such as those at the Dugway Proving Ground, depicted in Emmet Gowin’s photograph, were the final resting places of many sarin-filled rockets. 36,000 rockets were burned there in the 1960s alone.

Critics of the facility claim that it is riddled with about 300 operational flaws and regulatory violations and that it is not operating at full capacity. Many citizens of nearby cities also express concerns that they could become “downwinders” due to possible exposure to toxic gas carried by wind currents. Since the toxins would be released into the open air, wind currents could carry them to nearby cities, hence the name coined by residents of Salt Lake City, who were “downwinders,” after having been exposed to toxins from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Several cases of malfunction have been reported, such as one in 1996 when sarin gas was detected beyond one of the system’s terminating filters.

EG&G Defense Materials Inc., the company operating the facility, maintains that the destruction of the weapons is much safer in the long run than simply storing them and that their facility is safe despite reports of defects and malfunctions. The deadline for disposing of the complete stockpile has been set to 2007, after which the plant is to be shut down.

Selected Bibliography

Brooke, James. “At Utah Plant, Safety Debate Rages.” The New York Times, 28 November 1996, A14.

“Chemical Weapon Incinerator Called Unsafe.” The Washington Post, 28 November 1996, A14.

Ritchey, Michael. “Town’s Incinerator fails to fire up the locals.” The Denver Post, 19 May 2000, B6.

Tooele Army Depot, Utah Pictures in the Gallery