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U.S. seeks to burn nerve gas on island

The United States hopes to eliminate its European stockpile of nerve gas weapons by shipping them to a tiny Pacific island and burning them. A draft report by the U.S. Army says that the environmental impact of building an incinerator and burning the chemical weapons on Johnston Atoll - 700 miles southwest of Hawaii - will be minimal.

The incinerator will be a prototype for similar ones to be built in the United States to destroy chemical weapons stored in eight states.

Federal law required the Army to conduct the draft study and to analyze ecological consequences of burning the nerve gas. The incinerator is already built, and the burning could begin later this year.

The environmental group Greenpeace says the plan to transport dangerous weapons halfway across the world is disastrous. A single drop of nerve gas on the skin can kill a person within two hours.

Also, Greenpeace says that dioxins released during burning could harm the region's marine life and that toxic byproducts produced will be brought back to the United States and buried.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," said Shannon Fagan, a Greenpeace spokeswoman in Washington. "They're polluting the air, and then they're going to be producing toxic waste at the end. It just doesn't make sense." Dioxins don't degrade easily and cause birth defects and cancer.

Johnston Atoll, a U.S. territory, is a square-mile patch of coral in the Pacific Ocean. The island's history is shrouded in mystery.

About 300 people live there, mostly American military personnel and "a few natives," said Lt. Col. Dick Bridges, an Army spokesman at the Defense Department in Washington. A Reuters report last year said Continental Airlines stops there for refueling, and that only visitors on official business are allowed to disembark.

The atoll, which is administered by the Defense Department, is the only overseas site other than West Germany where the United States has built up large stocks of rockets, shells and storage tanks containing nerve gas.

But Greenpeace views the place not as a weapons stockpile, but as a bird sanctuary that is host to albatrosses. The group believes that U.S. treatment of the atoll demonstrates how the United States has abused its role as protector of this and other South Pacific islands.

The Army has no real alternative to building this "factory-size"

incinerator, Bridges, the Army spokesman, said Wednesday.

Congress has mandated that all U.S. stocks of chemicals weapons be

destroyed by April 1997. There are eight storage sites for chemical weapons in the United States. Incinerators will be built in each area because a 1970 federal law bans taking chemical weapons to another site.

At the same time, President Bush has pledged to dismantle the bulk of the U.S. European stockpile of 30,000 tons of chemical weapons.

Bridges said West Germany will not allow an incinerator. And to bring the weapons into the United States "would be opening ourselves to the possibility of accidents, remote as it may be."

The only alternative, Bridges said, is to ship the European stocks to Johnston Atoll, where an incinerator is needed to rid it of weapons already there.

The Army maintains that the burning is safe and that emissions conform to Environmental Protection Agency standards. Greenpeace, however, says the EPA has no prescribed level for dioxins.

And "it's not unsafe to transport (the weapons)," out of Europe, Bridges asserted. He added the weapons represent less than 7 percent of the United States' total hoard, and are newer and safer compared to those stored domestically.

"Some of the stuff in the U.S. is extremely old," Bridges said, adding these would have greater chances of leaking or damage if moved.

The U.S. stockpile also contains other chemicals, such as mustard gas and Agent Orange.

Last year, the Soviet Union offered to destroy its 50,000 tons of chemical weapons. But its plans were halted when residents of Chapayevsk protested. (The Soviet town is on a tributary of the Volga River, where the incinerator was to be located.) A report brought out last year by Greenpeace notes that residents and environmental groups in islands neighboring Johnston Atoll - Hawaii, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia - are concerned that chemical residues could escape into the air or water and disrupt tuna fishing and the region's ecology. A part of the Marshall Islands is still contaminated by nuclear testing and its residents were displaced. Before it acquired its deadly arsenal, Johnston Atoll was a site for atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

Bridges says that none of the other islands have protested. And he

maintains the burning is safe.

During the incineration, the weapons will be disassembled in a sealed chamber and the metal, explosives and chemicals will all be separated and burned.

"The only byproduct is burnt pieces of metal," Bridges said. "If it were to be released, it would still be safer than the air that you and I are breathing."

- Information from Reuters was used in this report.