Erasing a chemical arsenal in the Kentucky woods

Efforts have been stepped up at the Blue Grass Army Depot to wipe out the last of the U.S. chemical weapons’ stockpile. But disposal isn’t expected to be completed until 2021, well past deadlines.

August 23, 2009|Bob Drogin

RICHMOND, KY. — Behind armed guards in bulletproof booths deep in the Kentucky woods, workers have begun pouring the foundations for a $3-billion complex designed to destroy America’s last stockpile of deadly chemical weapons.

The aging arsenal at the Blue Grass Army Depot contains 523 tons of liquid VX and sarin — lethal nerve agents produced during the Cold War — and mustard, a blister agent that caused horrific casualties in World War I.

The Obama administration has pushed to speed up the disposal operation after decades of delay, skyrocketing costs and daunting technical problems. The arms must be destroyed by April 2012 under international treaty and by December 2017 under federal law. But the Pentagon notified Congress in May that, even under what it called an accelerated schedule, it would not finish the job until 2021.

A senior administration aide downplayed the diplomatic fallout of missing the arms control deadline.

“No one accuses the United States of willfully seeking to violate the treaty for purposes of maintaining our chemical weapons arsenal,” said Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction. “Everyone understands this is a technical problem.”

For now, more than 100,000 poison-filled munitions are stacked like bottles of wine in 44 dirt-covered concrete bunkers beside the construction site. Intruders are kept out by a double row of chain-link fences topped with cameras, coiled razor wire and signs warning, “Use of Deadly Force Authorized.”

About a third of the World War II-era igloos are so dilapidated that green plastic sheeting was recently draped over them to keep the rain out. Some of the rockets, warheads, mortar rounds and artillery shells inside are just as old — and are leaking as well.

On Monday, trace amounts of mustard vapor were detected inside a munitions bunker. That followed a sarin leak in another igloo in June, and separate sarin and mustard leaks in May.

“We do experience leakers from time to time at very, very low levels,” said Lt. Col. David Musgrave, commander of the Blue Grass Chemical Activity, as the storage site is called. He said no toxic plumes have escaped the igloos or threatened the surrounding community.

Local emergency response officials, however, have stepped up precautions.

Madison County recently obtained federal funds to give 40,000 special radios to residents and businesses here in the lush, rolling hills of central Kentucky, home to horse farms and tobacco fields. The radios will sound an alarm if a major accident occurs.

I’m happier now,” said Kent Clark, the county judge-executive. “People have finally stood up and noticed that we live next to the country’s deadliest stockpile.”

Blue Grass is one of six Army installations where chemical weapons are stored. Four currently are incinerating their stockpiles. In the 1980s, Pentagon officials estimated a $600-million price tag to eliminate the toxic arsenals. The estimated cost today: $40 billion.

“We wound up having to build many more destruction facilities than originally planned,” said Milton Leitenberg, a weapons expert at the University of Maryland. “The more time it takes, the more it costs.”

Blue Grass is the last site to store lethal VX and sarin, and will be the last to destroy its weapons. The task is unusually difficult because, unlike other sites, all the chemicals here are loaded in highly explosive M55 rockets and corroding, fully armed munitions.

“It’s like super-toxic hazardous waste at this point,” said Jonathan Tucker, a nonproliferation specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “Getting rid of it is a very nasty process.”

Concerns about safety at Blue Grass were highlighted last month when lawyers for Donald Van Winkle, a former chemical weapons monitor who claims he was forced out of his job at the facility after he uncovered unsafe conditions, obtained an Army investigative report through the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspector general’s report confirmed Van Winkle’s allegation that a key air-monitoring component was improperly installed in the VX igloos between September 2003 and August 2005. VX is the deadliest of all nerve agents.

An “accurate measurement of any VX agent vapor release would not have been possible,” the 51-page report concluded. It found “no evidence” that VX had leaked or endangered the public before the error was corrected.

In December, a federal administrative law judge dismissed Van Winkle’s whistle-blower lawsuit against the Army. The burly, 38-year-old Gulf War veteran remains bitter about his attempts to expose what he said were dangerous conditions.

“I tried to protect a place that’s crucial to national security,” Van Winkle said. “I thought they’d thank me.”

Another self-described whistle-blower, Kim Schafermeyer, 59, alleged he was fired as a chemist in 2006 in retaliation for citing safety and pollution problems at Blue Grass. A judge dismissed his lawsuit last year on a technicality.

Schafermeyer contends that the aging munitions are decomposing faster than officials admit. “They are highly unstable,” he said. “These things should be destroyed next week.”

Documented problems at the facility have persisted.

In October 2007, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection cited Blue Grass for four violations of state regulations. Inspectors noted unsafe storage and disposal of hazardous material, inaccurate record keeping and inadequate training “to prevent releases of chemical warfare agents to the environment.”

Partly as a result, the environmental crimes section at the U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation. The grand jury inquiry concluded in April without any indictments or arrests, Blue Grass legal counsel B. Kevin Bennett said.

U.S. forces have not fired chemical munitions in combat since World War I, although during the Vietnam War, the Air Force sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides to defoliate jungles and cropland. The postwar Vietnamese government said the defoliants caused thousands of deaths, disabilities and birth defects. Some U.S. soldiers also were affected, and the Veterans Affairs Department has listed numerous cancers and other illnesses as “presumptive” conditions of Agent Orange exposure.

In 1975, President Ford signed the Geneva Protocol, a treaty that prohibits first use of chemical weapons. But the Pentagon continued to produce deadly nerve agents in battlefield weapons as a deterrent — or in case the Cold War turned hot.

By the mid-1980s, the Army had stockpiled 31,500 tons of liquid chemical agents in eight states and on Johnston Atoll, a remote Pacific island.

But political pressure was growing to get rid of the witch’s brew. In 1986, President Reagan signed a law to eliminate chemical warfare material and production facilities. Officials pledged to complete the disarmament by 1994.

The program instead sparked bitter political battles across the country.

The Pentagon and the National Academy of Sciences insisted that incineration was the easiest, cheapest and safest solution. But local activists and environmental groups opposed moving the munitions or incinerating them at each site, arguing that neither option was safe.

The first incinerator began operating at Johnston Atoll in 1990. It completed the job and closed a decade later as debate continued to rage at other sites.

“We sued everyone we could,” said Craig Williams, a Vietnam veteran who heads the Chemical Weapons Working Group, an anti-incineration organization based above a quilt shop in Berea, Ky., a town near Blue Grass.

The logjam broke after Sept. 11, 2001, when domestic security officials warned that the igloos made tempting targets for terrorists. Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah soon began incinerating their stockpiles.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington tossed out a lawsuit from Williams’ group that sought to close the four incinerators for allegedly pumping out hazardous emissions. The judge ruled that the Army had proved the incinerators were safe.

“On the whole, they [have] worked pretty well,” said Paul Walker, head of Global Green USA, a nonproliferation group. “From time to time, they would burp out live agent and had toxic releases. But no one was injured.”

Under pressure from incineration opponents, however, Congress ordered the Pentagon to seek other options. The result: machines in sealed chambers that disassemble the munitions, neutralize the toxic chemicals inside and decontaminate the waste.

“These facilities are expensive because they’re essentially operated by robots,” said Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Disposal operations using those techniques recently concluded in Indiana and Maryland, and the Pentagon says 60% of the U.S. arsenal is now destroyed.

The Obama administration has stepped up funding to push the process. Last month, the House approved $547 million for the last two disposal facilities, at Blue Grass and the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. If the Senate agrees, it would be a sharp increase from previous years.

Under the defense appropriations bill passed last year, the Pentagon must complete destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile “in no circumstances later than” Dec. 31, 2017. But under the timetable sent to Congress in May, Blue Grass won’t begin operations until 2018 and won’t finish destroying the munitions for three years.

It thus is on track to violate a deadline set by the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Washington obtained a five-year extension on compliance with the convention, which initially required signatories to eliminate their stockpiles by 2007. The treaty, however, doesn’t provide for a second deferral. U.S. diplomats recently visited The Hague, where the treaty organization is based, to explain the situation.

“We’re going to take all sorts of whacks from other delegations, especially the Iranians,” Walker said. “How can the U.S. expect other countries to honor the treaty if we’re in violation?”

For now, crews are busy at an 18-acre site carved into the forest at Blue Grass. On a recent muggy afternoon, they operated front-end loaders and laid pipe. A red steel crane towered overhead. It will help erect a six-story building designed to contain the accidental detonation of poison-filled rockets or other munitions.

“No vapors would get out and there’d be no breaches to the wall,” said Mark Seely, the project manager.

Nearby, row after row of chemical weapons igloos were visible in a grassy field, patrolled by armed guards in a white pickup truck.

“This facility is not [like building] a shopping mall,” Seely said. “It’s one of a kind.”

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