This isn't the first time safety concerns have been raised about the Utah plant, which stands roughly 50 miles from Salt Lake City. "There's a long-standing argument between the government and people who work in the Tooele facility over how safe it is," says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson. "And it's plain to everyone that although the amounts of sarin [a nerve gas] and other chemicals disgorged into the air are very low, they're not zero." The Army responded to Harris's claims with a promise of a complete investigation and a statement insisting they will "continue to provide maximum protection to human health and to the environment." Part of the problem, says Thompson, is that whatever the true situation at the plant, the military has done a lousy public relations job. "There's a lot of mistrust on both sides," he adds. And now Harris, who alleges he became ill from exposure to industrial chemicals used in the incineration process, could emerge as exactly the whistle-blower environmental and health activists have been looking for. "The plant's opponents have been screaming for years that it's deadly and so far, at least, there's been no evidence to support that view," says Thompson.
No one has ever accused the U.S. Army of offering an utterly transparent view of their behind-the-scenes maneuvers and no one in their right mind would ever want the military to share all its secrets. Sometimes, however, the public's right to know and the military's need for privacy meet at a fractious crossroads. Such is the case with Gary Harris, a civilian employee at Utah's Tooele chemical weapons plant, who appeared Tuesday at the National Press Club, claiming he was forced by Army officials to falsify environmental records during the course of his work in order to hide health and safety flaws in the plant's weapons-incineration process. Harris says he reported problems to his superiors, who instructed him to keep the information to himself, on pain of losing his job; he has since voluntarily resigned from his post.