Oct 7 9:00 PM

The long, costly process of destroying chemical weapons

Debra Michaels, a chemical operations manager, inspects mustard agent shells in 2010 in a bunker at the Pueblo Army Chemical Storage facility in Pueblo, Colo.
AP file photo/Ed Andrieski

Beneath concrete and earthen bunkers in Kentucky and Colorado sit 6.2 million pounds of debilitating and deadly chemical weapons.

These U.S military rockets, mortar shells and bulk containers remain one of the biggest such arsenals left in the world. But like the other 90 percent of the American stockpile has been, the remaining arsenal is slated to be destroyed in the coming decade.

"These weren’t designed to be disassembled. They were designed to be used in war," said Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for the Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, which is overseeing construction of the final two U.S. destruction facilities.

Since 1990, workers and robots at plants in six states and the middle of the Pacific Ocean have systematically destroyed some 55 million pounds of liquid VX, sarin and mustard agent in a variety of containers and weapons -- some dating back to World War I. The decades-long process of destroying all of America's chemical weapons is expected to cost around $35 billion, according to a recent estimate.

With the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons having started its U.N.-backed mission in Syria on Sunday to secure and monitor the destruction of the Assad regime's arsenal of an estimated 2 million pounds, it’s worth noting that the U.S. and Russia -- the countries that brokered the deal -- have yet to fully destroy their own stockpiles and have missed two deadlines to do so.

The OPCW's top priority is to prevent Syria from being able to make any more chemical weapons. Also, Syria's existing stockpile is supposed to be destroyed by the middle of next year. But as the American destruction process has illustrated, that's a tall order, even in a peaceful country.

Under ideal conditions, destroying chemical weapons is a controversial, pricey, time-consuming and tricky process. Doing so in a country embroiled in a war will be immensely more difficult.

A French intelligence report from September says Syria’s stockpile consists of chemical warfare agents, precursor chemicals and several thousand delivery vehicles such as missiles. While details of the complicated destruction work starting there are just beginning to emerge, we can take away some lessons from how the United States has destroyed most of its arsenal -- and how it plans to finish the job.

The American approach

The United States has used two main methods to eliminate its stockpile: incineration and neutralization through combinations of extreme heat, pressure and treatment with caustic solutions. Both ways involve the difficult task of draining the poisons and taking apart a weapon's explosives, fuel, frame and other parts so that they can be separately treated. The remaining byproducts are also treated, then recycled or disposed.

This all takes place inside plants that have blast walls, warning sirens, shelter-in-place equipment and ventilation systems that would contain the spread of chemical agents in the event of a leak. Nearby emergency responders undergo training to respond to any potential mishaps dealing with a chemical weapon.

Seven of these plants have been built and completed their missions. The final two are Colorado's Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (slated to open in 2015 and finish destruction by 2019) and Kentucky's Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (projected to open in 2020 and finish weapons destruction by 2023).

This animated video illustrates the destruction process that will be used in Colorado on projectiles and mortar rounds containing 2,611 tons of the blister agent mustard:

(Here's how sarin, VX and mustard chemical weapons will be destroyed in Kentucky.)

The American chemical weapons destruction began in 1990 on Johnston Atoll, a tiny island southwest of Hawaii where the Army incinerated weapons that had been moved from Germany, Japan and elsewhere.

"It's the picture of the middle of nowhere," said Greg Mahall, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity (ACWA), which oversaw destruction of the American stockpile destruction before that task was transferred to DeWeese's group, ACWA.

Mahall said the one-square-mile island atop an extinct volcano previously served as an airbase and refueling depot for the Navy. After proving to Congress that incineration worked, the Army started the process of designing and building weapon incinerators on the U.S. mainland -- while working with those communities to make sure citizens understood the process, emergency procedures were in place and first responders were trained to deal with an incident.

Dealing with the unexpected

Over the course of destroying 90 percent of the U.S. arsenal, the military and its contractors ran into some surprises.

"The program had some assumptions about the weapons, that we could 'reverse assemble' them, but some of these are from World War I and they don't come apart way they came together," Mahall said.

Additionally, what went into the weapons decades ago wasn't what necessarily came out. Due to the chemical agents deteriorating, the chemistry inside can change.

"One of the mustard munitions on Johnston Island, we popped the top and it came out like a Champagne bottle," he said. "We didn't expect that."

At the incineration facility in Anniston, Ala., some of the liquid sarin contained in rockets gelled or crystallized.

But despite the curveballs, most of the destruction happened without incident.

"We did have occasions where the workers ran into some issues with stuff here and there," Mahall said. "But it was nothing major. No one died."

One worker accidentally sat in a drop of mustard agent that penetrated cotton coveralls. The Army was also fined by the Environmental Protection Agency after a 1994 accident involving the release of some sarin on Johnston Atoll.

Workers would only wear hazmat "moon suits" if they were working in the most toxic areas of a plant, Mahall said. Usually, they would wear a construction outfit with a gas mask in a bag on their hip.

"It was a noble mission," Mahall said of the process so far. "It took longer and cost more than we originally thought …  but we did it safely and without harming workers, our community and our environment."

On the current schedule, the U.S. is slated to destroy the last 10 percent of its chemical weapons by 2023. Whether Syria will beat the U.S. and Russia across the finish line for destroying its arsenal remains to be seen.

Community concerns

Elizabeth Crowe is pleased with how the chemical weapons near her home are going to be destroyed, but that wasn't always the case.

Crowe, director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, was part of a coalition of citizens that pressured Congress for more than a decade to halt plans to incinerate the nearby chemical weapons out of concerns that doing so could spread dangerous toxins in the air.

We want them gone as soon as possible, but not in a way that's going to be a setback in terms of public health or worker safety.

"We want them gone as soon as possible, but not in a way that's going to be a setback in terms of public health or worker safety," said Crowe. "I started working on this for myself in late 1992, and I became a mom in 1996. In between there, I thought about, ‘Do I stay or go? I do want to stay here. I like this community. It is a safe and wonderful place to raise a child.”

While the Army originally planned to use incineration at all of its destruction sites, community opposition and lobbying efforts led to the development of neutralization technology that has been used in Indiana and Maryland – and will be used in Kentucky and Colorado. Defeating the plan to build an incinerator in Kentucky “entirely impacted my decision to stay here," Crowe said.

"Overall, it was a huge success with many years of work from folks at the grassroots level who were not necessarily chemists and engineers but understood that technology could be developed to avoid community exposure,” Crowe said.

During the process of bringing destruction plants online, Mahall said the military dealt with chemical weapons perceptions that have been shaped by Hollywood movies like 1996's "The Rock," which focused on the threat of using VX gas in San Francisco.

"People talk about the gas like you get from an old World War II movie," he said. "It's all liquid." He added: "You have to contend with preconceptions -- the fear of the unknown."

In each of the communities where weapons destruction was going to take place, the Army established outreach offices to share information about the process, plant safety and local emergency preparedness. People opposed to the destruction facilities or incineration were allowed to distribute their own information at those offices as well.

"There isn’t too much we do that we don’t ask their opinion," DeWeese said of community involvement. "We're a government agency, and we're paid by the taxpayers. People deserve to see all points on an issue."

Crowe said she's satisfied with the outcome of the decades of hearings, legislative congressional action and compromise between the community and the military, saying it's proof of democracy in action.

“It means so much to know there is true public oversight of this process,” she said. “That point can’t be understated. It doesn’t happen that way a lot.”

Crowe said she’s very glad the chemical weapons near her home were never used on people, but said it’s still a little baffling to be dealing with the toxic legacy of a war nearly a century ago.

“Imagine the chemists in the Army: Could they envision 100 years later that we'd still be getting rid of these things?” she said.

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