By Margaret Newkirk
— Weapons armed with the same nerve gas used on Syrian citizens last month sit in grass-topped concrete bunkers at an Army depot in Kentucky, 20 years after the U.S. government promised to destroy them.
The bunkers, in a field at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, house rockets and other artillery holding 523 tons of the nerve agents VX and sarin in addition to flesh-blistering mustard gas. A partnership including San Francisco-based Bechtel National Inc. is building a plant to destroy them. It will open seven years from now and will dispose of the last weapon there three years later.
This week, as international monitors learn the size and makeup of the chemical weapons stockpile Syria has pledged to destroy by next year, the Blue Grass stash stands as a warning: Safe destruction of chemical weapons isn't easy.
Syria's promised pace would be ambitious even in a country without a civil war, said Michael Kuhlman, chief scientist for national security at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio which is working on the Blue Grass project 30 miles south of Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky.
"I found the time frame for Syria surprising," Kuhlman said in an interview. 'They are presumably starting from scratch in terms of destruction capability and the security situation there certainly isn't going to expedite matters.''
Syrian President Bashar Assad affirmed his intentions in a Sept. 18 televised interview with Fox News. He said he would dispose of the weapons in about a year, with the guidance of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, Netherlands. The group enforces the international chemical weapons treaty that Syria joined last week. The United States joined the accord in 1993.
Assad said he understood the destruction process is complicated and he's been told it will cost about $1 billion.
The Syrian project's speed will hinge on how much of its chemical agents are already inside weapons, as they are in Kentucky. The job is easier if they aren't, Kuhlman said.
It will also depend on how the nation disposes of them. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, Iraq burned its chemical weapons in a ditch. The U.S. imposes environmental discharge rules, and destruction of the Blue Grass weapons was delayed in large part because local residents opposed incinerating them and Congress forced the Defense Department to find another way.
The U.S. chemical weapons stockpile contained more than 30,000 tons of lethal chemicals when the country signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, agreeing to destroy all of the weapons by last year. By comparison, Syria is estimated to have about 1,000 tons, Kuhlman said.
The U.S. chemical agents were stored at depots in Maryland, Arkansas, Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Colorado and Johnson Atoll, a territorial island in the South Pacific, in addition to the 14,500-acre Blue Grass site.
The Defense Department had been experimenting with ways of destroying the weapons before the U.S. signed the treaty, including dumping some of them at sea. In 1984, the Pentagon and the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, endorsed incineration as the best method.
That, too, is a slow process, said Kuhlman. Construction on an incinerator at Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah, which held 45 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile, started in 1989. Testing began in 1994, and it became operational in 1996, he said. It took two years to destroy a supply of nerve-agent weapons that was similar to the size of Syria's estimated stockpile. The entire Utah project took 15 years.
The U.S. met the treaty deadline at seven of nine sites, destroying 90 percent of its chemical stockpile. Most of the work was completed within the past few years.
The Blue Grass depot and a second depot near Pueblo, Colo., are the two left with chemical arsenals.
The cost of the entire disposal process, once completed, is estimated to be $35 billion, $10.6 billion of which will be spent in Kentucky and Colorado, according to Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives website, the agency responsible for destroying the weapons at the remaining depots.
The Colorado site has 2,600 tons of mustard gas inside more than 800,000 weapons. The 523 tons of mustard gas and nerve agents in Kentucky are inside 101,000 weapons, according to Craig Williams, 65, who is co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Citizens Advisory Board for the Blue Grass project.
The Kentucky site has been storing mustard gas for years. The first shipment of nerve-agent rockets arrived in 1961, said Lloyd Anglin, of Berea, who worked on the depot's engineering staff at the time.
The rockets came in a locked boxcar, which sat on a railroad spur for four days under armed guard as the engineering team rushed to build a facility "to unload whatever it was," said Anglin, now 90. "The armed guards were there 24-7. Nobody knew what it was except the brass."
The shipments arrived regularly after that and the team learned that they contained agents that would kill on contact. Anglin helped seal some of the rockets in concrete-filled caskets, which were then put on a ship in Wilmington, North Carolina and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Most stayed in the earth under grass-topped, domed concrete bunkers called igloos, which are laid out in a widely spaced grid. Deer grazed there and some died, Anglin said, if they ate too close to a monitor vent at a bunker with "leakers." Security fencing around the area has since been improved.
A bunny hutch housed a critical part of the monitoring system. A trio of rabbits spent the night in any bunker scheduled for human inspection, which went forward if they survived.
"I would put one in the back, one in the center and one in the front, then leave them there overnight," Anglin said. "The next day, if the rabbits were OK, we'd go in. Once in a while, you'd get a dead rabbit," Anglin said.
The government no longer uses animals as air monitors, Elzea said in an email.
Most depot neighbors knew nothing of the weapons. They learned of their existence after the Defense Department announced plans to incinerate the deadly chemicals in 1984, according to Williams, 65, the advisory board member.
Convinced that burning them could spread contaminants accidentally, the community fought with the Army for the next 12 years. Houses and a school were a little more than a mile from the depot site, Williams said: "It's not like we're in the middle of the desert here."
The fight ended in 1996 when Congress passed a law requiring the Pentagon to investigate alternative technologies. Williams blames the Defense Department for the delay. "They decided how they were going to do it without consulting with the community," he said.
Alternative disposal technologies now are on track to be used at both the Kentucky and Colorado depots.
In Colorado, a factory that will destroy the mustard gas arsenal will be complete in 2015, and the last weapons will be annihilated in 2019.
In Kentucky, the partnership of Bechtel National and Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group Inc., of Pasadena, Calif., is building a robotized plant that will separate the chemicals from the weapons, then turn them into water, carbon dioxide and salts, using a combination of heat, water, caustics and pressure. The last weapon will be gone in 2023.