Chemical stockpile scrapping work proceeds amid dissent.
Up until a few years ago, the focus of the U.S. chemical demilitarization program was to ensure the entire stockpile of more than 31,000 tons of bulk agents and munitions be destroyed by April 29,2007--exactly a decade from the day the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
But mounting criticism from local governments, lawmakers and advocacy organizations about the safety of the Arm/s incinerators prompted program officials to reevaluate priorities. They decided that, even though they wanted to obliterate the stockpile as quickly as possible, they also needed to satisfy public-safety and environmental concerns about the methods of destruction.
"We are still working to meet the 2007 goal," said James Bacon, the Army's program manager for chemical demilitarization. "We are looking at methods to accelerate destruction, where appropriate," he said in an interview. However, he added, "Our highest priority is the safety of the public, the workers [performing the destruction] and the environment.
So far, the United States has destroyed about 8,000 tons of chemical weapons. According to Bacon, "That surpasses our immediate treaty goal of 20 percent [of the stockpile] by April 2002."
Of the nine chemical-weapon sites where the Army was to set up demilitarization operations, there are still two where the work has not even started yet, because federal, stare and local officials have not agreed on what destruction method they should use.
The reason these two depots--located in Pueblo, Cob, and in Blue Grass, Ky.--have lagged behind is that Congress passed legislation in 1997 that directed the Army to evaluate alternative technologies to incineration.
There are incinerators currently operating in Tooele, Utah, and Anniston, Ala. The Army is building one in Umatilla, Oregon, and recently began dismantling an incineration facility in Johnston Island (located in the Central Pacific), which was used to destroy about 2,000 tons of chemical weapons.
It appears inevitable that Pueblo and Blue Grass will fail to meet the 2007 goal. "Our schedule extends beyond that, in some of our sites," said Bacon: Depending on how long it takes to build destruction facilities at the two depots, it could well be 2010 or 2012 before those stockpiles are destroyed.
To obtain an extension beyond 2007, the United States must file a request by April 29, 2006. Officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would then determine whether to extend the deadline by five years. A decision to seek an extension would come from national authorities, not from the Army, Bacon noted. "It's a national security policy issue."
Bacon, who is scheduled to retire this month, reports to Mario Fiori, assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment. Bacon stressed that he is not leaving the government, because this program "is too hard," but because he wishes to retire to his hometown in Arkansas, after 42 years of public service.
The current chain of command was implemented on December 12, 2001. Before that, Bacon's superior was the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
Bacon said the reason for the change was to consolidate different functions of the demilitarization program under one office, given that Fiori already had responsibility for the emergency preparedness of the chemical depots. Although Bacon did nor mention any cost overruns as a reason for the switch in leadership, it seemed dear to observers that the Army had to make a management change in the program, after the Pentagon's Defense Acquisition Board concluded that the Arm/s budget estimates for the chemical demilitarization effort were $9 billion short.
Congress created the office of the program manager for chemical demilitarization in 1985. At the time, the Army had pegged the cost of the demilitarization program at approximately $15 billion. Last summer, the DAB revised that estimate to $24 billion, "to cover the risks of future increases," said Bacon. The $24 billion would pay for the destruction of the 31,000-ton stockpile (ready-to-use weapons) as well as for the non-stockpile items. These include former production facilities and recovered unexploded chemical munitions produced for World War I. The non-stockpile funds also cover emergency preparedness programs for the storage of those weapons until they are destroyed. Non-stockpile chemical weapons are not restricted to the Arm/s eight chemical depots. Thirty-eight states have non-stockpile items.
After September 11, the Defense Department tightened security procedures at the chemical depots and added more guards at each facility. The cost of the additional security was not part of the $9 billion increase to the Army's demilitarization budget blueprint.
More than 60 percent of the U.S. chemical stockpile consists of blister and nerve agents stored in one-ton bulk containers. The rest of the stockpile is in the form of fully assembled munitions.
Status of Facilities
The most successful demilitarization operation so far has been the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) site, located in the Central Pacific on Johnston Island, a one-square mile atoll 825 miles from Honolulu. The United States began storing chemical weapons there in 1971, when the Army transferred munitions from Okinawa, Japan. Additional munitions were shipped from West Germany and the Solomon Islands.
The JACADS plant opened in 1990 and recently completed the incineration of 2,031 tons--6.4 percent of the U.S. stockpile--of chemical weapons stored there. The facility will not be totally closed for another two to three years.
The original stockpile at JACADS included 43,660 mortar shells, 72,242 rockets, over 275,000 projectiles, 13,300 land mines and 200 one-ton containers. The JACADS contractor is the Washington Demilitarization Company.
The incinerator now in operation at the Tooele facility -- near the Deseret Chemical depot -- will dispose of 13,616 tons of chemical agents, or approximately 44.5 percent of the nation's stockpile. The facility was built by EG&G Defense Materials Inc.
The chemical-scrapping efforts at Tooele have not lacked critics. About a year ago, between 18 and 36 milligrams of sarin nerve gas leaked from the main smokestack at the Tooele facility, during the decommissioning of a batch of M56 rocket warheads. The Centers for Disease Control concluded that the release posed no threat to human health or the environment and Army officials maintain that the design and procedural errors that led to the accidental release have been rectified. The Chemical Weapons Working Group, an anti-incineration advocacy group, asserts that the incineration process is harmful to the environment and jeopardizes public health. A spokesman for CWWG said that there have been more than a dozen occasions when nerve agents have escaped from the stacks of the Army's incinerators. "There is concern in the communities surrounding the storage sites about the chronic emissions of other toxins resulting from burning these munitions," the spokesman said. "Among the identified substances released during incineration operations are PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead and arsenic."
The Army, however, disputes such claims. The service's view is that incineration is safe and that the bigger risk is to keep thousands of tons of chemical weapons around. According to observers, the Army in many ways created its own public-relations problems by failing to bring the local communities into the process earlier on. Once the Army realized it was not getting the support it needed, it was too late to turn the incineration opponents around, even though the service spent more than a billion dollars on outreach efforts during the past several years.
Currently, there are international inspectors working at Tooele. Employed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, these inspectors conduct a standard oversight program mandated by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Army announced last month that the largest stockpile of sarin (or GB) nerve gas in the United States was destroyed at Tooele. The incineration of more than 12 million pounds of sarin began at Tooele in 1996. The stockpile included more than 900,000 individual munitions.
EG&G also built an incineration facility at the Anniston Depot, in Alabama. The Army tested the incinerator last month for the first rime. This is the first facility in operation that is located in a highly populated area. More than 72,000 people live within about 9 miles of Anniston, where bunkers hold 2,254 tons of rockets, artillery shells, land mines and bulk containers of chemical weapons. The Army plans to start incinerating nerve agents at Anniston in September.
Meanwhile, Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman has filed suit to block disposal of real nerve agents at Anniston, unless the federal government provides $40.5 million for emergency response equipment and gear. In an attempt to settle the lawsuit, the Army offered to buy $8 million worth of protective masks for 35,000 area residents.
There are facilities under construction today at three other chemical depots: Umatilla, Pine Bluff and Newport.
The Umatilla incinerator first broke ground in 1997. It was designed to destroy 3,717 tons, or 12 percent, of the U.S. stockpile. Umatilla stores 120,600 rockets, projectiles, bombs and mines. Even though the incinerator is nearly complete, last month, the Army recommended that the mustard gas at Umatilla be destroyed using a water-based neutralization system, in order to expedite the demilitarization process. At press time, Oregon officials were considering the proposal.
Construction of the Pine Bluff incinerator, in Arkansas, began in early 1999. Built by the Washington Demilitarization Company, it is scheduled to begin operations in 2003. Pine Bluff stores 3,850 tons, or 12.3 percent, of the stockpile. This includes 123,093 rockets, warheads, mines and one-ton containers,
At the Newport Chemical Depot, located 70 miles west of Indianapolis, the Parsons Infrastructure &Technology Group Inc. is building a facility that will destroy bulk VX agent via neutralization methods, rather than incineration. In 1999, Congress appropriated $61.2 million for this project.
The neutralization technology is called caustic chemical treatment and super critical water oxidation. The chemical agent will be neutralized using a water and sodium hydroxide solution -- leaving three bi-products, carbon monoxide, water and various types of salt. The operation could start as early as 2004. Newport stores 1,269 tons of VX nerve agent in 1,690 one-ton containers.
The stockpile in Aberdeen -- in the form of one-ton containers of mustard gas -- also will undergo a neutralization treatment, using a new three-step process: draining the agent from the ton containers, neutralizing the mustard and shipping the non-agent process wastes to a commercial biological treatment facility. Bechtel is the contractor responsible for the Aberdeen facility.
At Pueblo, the Army recently proposed building a $1 billion facility, where 2,600 tons of mustard gas inside 780,000 projectiles would be destroyed via a water-based neutralization process. The community adamantly had opposed incineration.
No specific destruction method has yet been selected for Blue Grass, where 523 tons of chemical weapons are stored. But it is likely to be some type of neutralization. One option being considered is a recycling facility, designed by Eco Logic Inc., based in Canada. The company's technology would convert on-site, hazardous waste and contaminated material into reusable or disposable products.
RELATED ARTICLE: U.S. Chemical Weapons Stockpile: A Brief History
The United States began to research, produce and store chemical weapons during World War I. Mustard gas was the first chemical weapon until the 1940s.
During the 1950s and early '60s, the production of chemical weapons greatly increased.
They were, and continue to be, stockpiled at eight continental storage depots and on Kalama Atoll in the Pacific.
The four stockpiled chemical agents are:
* Mustard gas, termed agent H by the Army, quickly penetrates the skin and is a potent carcinogen. Inhalation of H produces pulmonary edema.
* GB or sarin, the most volatile of the nerve agents, causes victims to experience pinpoint pupils, increased salivation, abnormal tearing of the eyes, urination, diarrhea, convulsions, respiratory collapse and death.
* VX, twice as toxic as GB by inhalation, 10 times as toxic orally and 170 times as toxic by percutaneous administration, has similar immediate, acute toxic effects.
* BZ, a potent psychomimetic, produces hallucinations, confusion, delirium, amnesia, rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, ataxia and weakness.
By 1968, production of unitary chemical weapons in the United States had stopped and the Army was disposing of the obsolete weapons by deep ocean dumping, land burial and open-pit burning.
These methods were banned subsequently. In 1969, a National Academy of Science study concluded that ocean dumping should be abandoned and in 1972 Congress passed the Marine Protection Act, which prohibited any further ocean disposal.
Between 1973 and 1982, the Army researched neutralization technologies. In 1982, the Army adopted incineration as the preferred technology for chemical weapons disposal.
The first incinerator was built on the Kalama Atoll in the Pacific to dispose of chemical weapons that had been shipped there in 1971 from Okinawa.
(Source: "Chemical Weapons Disposal and Environmental Justice" by Suzanne Marshall.)