December 02, 1990

Article at Los Angeles Times

Danger Is Constant Companion on Atoll

A frigatebird perches on a reminder of the island's toxic legacy

Wilson da Silva

JOHNSTON ATOLL, Pacific Ocean: Life is pleasant on Johnston Atoll even though death could be just a malfunction away.

Here, 720 miles southwest of Hawaii in an idyllic Pacific setting of palm trees and coral islets, the United States has built the world’s largest chemical weapons destruction station.

Any visitor is fitted with a gas mask, carries a nerve gas antidote in a syringe and must be ready to jab himself within seconds of an alarm sounding. 

In the first-ever media tour to the remote atoll in October, U.S. Army staff assured reporters the operation was safe.

So safe that 79 missiles with the lethal nerve agent Sarin were burned while the group of 80 reporters visited furnaces, each wearing on his belt his gas mask and syringe pouch.

During one tour, a temperature fluctuation in one furnace chamber forced a plant shutdown for 44 minutes.

It was one of the many nagging problems that have kept the $340-million incinerator operating for only 24% of the time expected.

Six times since trial burning began in June, contamination alarms have sounded throughout the facility, only to prove false readings. Some conveyor belts within the complex that carry non-lethal munitions parts have repeatedly broken down.

“When the plant operates, it operates very well; however we are seeing more problems than we had expected,” Charles Baronian, technical director of the U.S. Army’s chemical disposal program at Johnston, said.

“Because the problems are mechanical I would primarily characterize it as a design flaw, but not a basic flaw.”

Baronian stressed that the breakdowns do not endanger safety and mostly occur in conveyor belts and other transfer points. Shutdowns occur only because site managers take no chances.

On the atoll are 54 storage bunkers, most brimming with missiles and mortars of chemical gas and liquid.

Nerve agents such as Sarin, which are odorless and colorless, can seep through clothing and skin, restrict breathing, cause involuntary urination, convulsions and finally death. Mustard gas raises watery blisters hours after contact and inflames the nose and throat.

All of the atoll’s 1,400 residents carry gas masks and walk around with a pouch filled with syringes filled with nerve gas antidote, which must be injected within seconds of exposure. Masks must be fitted within nine seconds.

Throughout the island, automated detectors take 29,000 readings daily from 106 monitoring stations. They scan the air in workplaces and around the island, sounding an alarm when they detect the presence of nerve agent or blister gas.

Palm trees and wire fences, softball teams and decontamination rooms, armed military police and a nine-hole golf course – they are the contrasts of the atoll.

The constant breeze and the beauty of the setting mask the atoll’s true nature.

One section of Johnston Island is sealed off due to a large spill of Agent Orange. In another area, the failed launch of a nuclear missile left plutonium in the water.

But this does not always bother its residents, who are mostly from the United States on contracts of six months to a year.

“We’ve got a six-lane bowling alley, movies every night, and softball is really popular,” said Curtis Rodgers, a civilian technician. “A lot of people fish out there. Scuba diving is excellent, and you can sail and water ski.

“I’ve been living on the island two years, and if I thought there was any danger I wouldn’t be there.”