SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ A U.S. defense agency is in Salt Lake City testing its ability to track the movement of deadly chemical or industrial gases _ a potential threat being assessed by security planners for the 2002 Olympic Games.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is monitoring the flow of a harmless gas being released over the Salt Lake valley this month for a weather study.
It is taking advantage of the Olympic-related study of tricky weather patterns in this mountain-rimmed city, where winter inversions can trap cold, stagnant air near ground level. The weather study involving several other federal agencies also aims to improve snowfall forecasts for the Winter Games.
``We are piggybacking on their efforts,″ Capt. Bob Bennett, a spokesman for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said Thursday. ``It’s a story of more bang for the buck.″
The mission of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is to detect and predict the spread of chemical and biological attacks and give American troops an early heads-up.
One phase of the weather study now under way involves the release of a nontoxic gas, sulfur hexafluoride, over the Salt Lake valley. The tracer gas is helping scientists measure swirling air motions.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is using its computers to track the heavy gas as it flows though Salt Lake City and penetrates buildings by way of ventilation ducts and open doors and windows. The results are expected to help the agency better predict the movements of deadly gases under variable weather conditions
``We’re fine-tuning our models and making them more accurate in an urban environment,″ Bennett said.
William Alder, the Salt Lake meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service, said the October phase of the weather forecasting study is being conducted as a benchmark of tranquil weather between summer and winter.
Bennett emphasized that the Defense Threat Reduction Agency can put its technology to use for more than military objectives. It can measure diesel fumes and industrial emissions and warn of accidental releases of deadlier gases.
And indeed, Salt Lake City is only 40 miles northeast of an Army incinerator burning the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Last May, the incinerator’s stack released a small drop of sarin that environmental regulators say was too small to harm people or the environment. Sarin is the same chemical used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995 that killed 12 people by paralyzing their lungs and other vital organs.
But experts say the biggest risks in Utah could come from corroding chemical casings or leaks wrought by earthquakes, plane crashes or lightening strikes.
John Ferriter, a top official in the Army’s chemical weapons destruction program, told a congressional committee in September that a one-ton Utah container had recently leaked a cupful of mustard agent.