Friday, May 22, 1998

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Ken Brooks sets a live GB (sarin) agent projectile on the belt
to begin the process of demilitarizing the weapon

The Army’s
disarming site

Johnston Atoll once again soon
will be strictly for the birds

By Gregg K. Kakesako


JOHNSTON ATOLL -- As the Army's chemical agent disposal plant here moves closer to finishing operations in the next two years, two biologists say they haven't seen any significant harm to the marine or bird population here.

In fact, Lindsey Hayes, manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the bird population where the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System has been operating since 1990 has been growing.

Johnston is one of nine chemical storage sites in the United States.

"Eight years of upwind and downwind studies of the chemical plant have shown no differences in the reproductive cycle of the red-tailed tropicbird, which is the most prominent species on the island," Hayes said.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The Army says its chemical agent disposal operation
has not harmed Johnson Atoll's wildelife, such as this
young great frigate bird.

Three of the smaller islands that are located in the atoll are teeming with birds and are restricted and off limits.

"Our biggest problem is the curious people who aren't accustomed to seeing so much wildlife," Hayes said.

Hayes is more concerned over the Navy's proposal to use several islands in the atoll as missile launch test pads tied into the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

Johnston Atoll, located 825 miles southwest of Honolulu, has been a national bird refuge since 1926. In 1940 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over management of the area as a national wildlife refuge.

The refuge has co-existed as a refueling and supply point for the military during World War II and the Korean War and as test site for atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1960s. One of the tests in 1962 involved accidental explosion of a Thor missile, polluting a small portion of the island with plutonium oxide.

Since 1971 it also assumed the duty as the Army's major Pacific storage site for chemical weapons, which had to be taken off Okinawa, and in 1990 it became the world's first full-scale facility built to destroy chemical weapons, costing $120 million annually to operate.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Projectiles with explosives removed are on their
way to have GB (sarin) agent removed.

Most of the four islands in the lagoon, including Johnston, are man-made. Dredging and fill operations by the Navy increased the size of Johnston from its original 46 acres to 625, increased Sand Island from 10 to 22 acres and added two new islands -- North with 25 acres and East with 18 acres.

From the air the flat, elongated Johnston Island, which is 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide, looks like an aircraft carrier stranded in the middle of the Pacific.

Phillip Lobel, associate professor of biology at Boston University, has been working here since 1983 when he helped write the environmental impact statement that led to the development of the chemical disposal plant.

"We have not been able to define any deterioration in the marine environment caused by the plant," said Lobel, who now holds a Defense Department contract designed to evaluate the effect of the Army facility on marine life.

"This is a beautiful, pristine island," Lobel told reporters who toured the 625-acre Johnston Island yesterday.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The residue of incinerated sarin is green glass.

Lobel said he found signs of other types of environmental pollution -- traces of polychlorinated biphenyl and zinc from sunken naval vessels -- but none directly linked to the chemical disposal plant.

More than 1,250 people, 80 percent of them civilians, work on the atoll.

Their main purpose is to destroy the Army's stockpile of chemical weapons. In 1991, Johnston Atoll held 6.6 percent of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile.

The original stockpile included nerve agent rockets, nerve agent bombs, blister and nerve agent containers and blister and nerve agent projectiles.

The Army says more than 69.7 percent of the munitions and more than 74.2 percent of the chemical agents stored here have been destroyed. That, the Army says, translates to more than 3 million pounds of nerve and mustard agent and more than 280,000 individual munitions, ranging from rockets to bombs.

By the end of next month, all of the containers and munitions filled with GB or sarin nerve gas, which is absorbed through inhalation, will have been destroyed. That represents 4 percent of the U.S. sarin stockpile, according to the Army.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Decontaminated projectiles are recased in original
crates as recyclable scrap metal. Each one is dented
so it cannot be reused.

The next step will be the destruction of mustard agent munitions. The Army says all soldiers will leave in the year 2000 when the plant shuts down, and within the next two years, the entire facility will have to be dismantled.

Air Force Col. Robert Sutton, whose job is to support the operations of the chemical disposal plant and the cadre of Army soldiers who defend the 54 bunkers where the munitions and the chemicals are stored, doesn't know what will become of Johnston after 2001.

"It belongs to the Wildlife Service, and no one else has expressed interest in it," Sutton said.

Located on a triangular peninsula on the eastern end of the atoll, the plant is part of highly secured area which also includes concrete munitions bunkers that are each 120 feet long and 16 feet high.

Armed military police guard the entrance to the area, which is ringed by a series of double fences and special anti-intrusion devices. Video cameras, which are constantly monitored at various locations, are placed at strategic intersections.

All of the island's key facilities, including housing, the medical clinic, its recreational and eating establishments, as well as its operations center, are located upwind of the plant.

All of Johnston's inhabitants also must carry a gas mask with them at all times, and the air in the disposal plant and other crucial areas is constantly monitored.

The Army seeks a new
solution for its solution

By Gregg K. Kakesako


JOHNSTON ATOLL -- The Army is still looking for a place to dispose of 244 barrels of decontamination solution stored here since 1971.

Gary McCloskey, project manager for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, said the Army doesn't want to repeat the mistake of not informing the community where the chemical waste will be destroyed.

McCloskey yesterday said Johnston isn't equipped to handle such waste.

"There are a variety of hazardous waste treatment plants that can better handle the material," McCloskey said.

The Army earlier this month had to cancel plans to ship the waste to a Sauget, Ill., waste treatment plant when residents there protested.

The Army has two more years to determine what to do before the chemical disposal plant will be closed.

"Our options are to send it off-island," McCloskey said, "or to make modifications here and treat it here."

The Army invited reporters to Johnston yesterday to view the operations of the 8-year-old chemical disposal plant.

The Army maintains that the decontamination solution is safe since it was only used to clean containers that had been filled with nerve and blister agents.

The containers that hold the solution are now old and beginning to corrode, so the solution needs to be transferred to other tanks. The Army is seeking an Environmental Protection Agency permit to expand the storage area where the old tanks are now held to accommodate the new tanks.

McCloskey said the Army does not need any type of permit to transfer the decontamination solution to the mainland.

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