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World's Chemical Arsenal Bulging, Terrifying

Iraq's weapons may be mythical, but the deadly material is ubiquitous.

September 26, 2004|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Writer

They were no-shows in Iraq, but tons of chemical weapons are stoking fears and costing billions to clean up elsewhere in the world -- from concrete "igloos" in Oregon, to the Panama rainforest, to the highlands of China, where Japanese war leftovers reportedly have killed hundreds.

In fact, more chemical munitions have turned up lately in Australia than in Iraq, where the Bush administration claimed up to 500 tons would be found. As Baghdad arms hunters searched in vain, chemical weapons material was even being unearthed four miles from the White House in Washington.

At least 8 million such weapons are stockpiled worldwide, and concern is deepening not only over the health and safety of nearby communities, but also over the threat of theft or attacks on depots brimming with sarin or VX, fearsome nerve agents that can kill by the drop.

"Chemical terrorism is something we should all be very concerned about," said Rogelio Pfirter, chief international watchdog for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees destruction of the armaments under a 1997 treaty.

As troubling as the terror potential is, "these weapons are leaking and pose a threat even without terrorist involvement," said Jonathan Tucker, a Monterey Institute specialist in unconventional arms. "The sooner we get rid of them, the better."

Inside U.S. chemical depots, shells filled with old sulfur mustard sometimes bubble over like a deadly champagne. Outside, the government is handing out thousands of emergency-warning radios to local residents. At least 12 leaks -- all apparently contained on-site -- occurred last year at the Army depot in Tooele, Utah, researchers at Washington's Stimson Center think tank reported.

National Guard companies have thrown cordons around these U.S. installations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In terrorism-plagued Russia, specialists fret over the security protecting its 36,000 tons of nerve agent.

Chemical warfare reached its depths in World War I, when mustard, phosgene and other gases left more than 1 million wounded and dead on European battlefields. It is World War I leftovers that cleanup crews have been uncovering since 2001 at an old Army test site in residential Spring Valley, up Massachusetts Avenue from central Washington, D.C.

Poisonous clouds were also unleashed in the 1930s by Italian troops in Ethiopia and China's Japanese invaders, and in the 1980s by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. It's believed that Egyptian gas was used in Yemen's civil war in the 1960s.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1997 treaty outlawing the weapons, gave governments declaring chemical holdings -- today the United States, Russia, India, South Korea, Albania and Libya -- 10 years to destroy them.

Even if extended to 2012, as the treaty allows, that deadline looks unachievable by either the United States or Russia, a U.S. government study finds. By April, the Americans had barely eliminated 20% of its stockpiles, and the Russians 1%.

"The greatest difficulty is purely one of resources and cost," said Richard Guthrie of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The U.S. Army has learned how complex and costly it is to eliminate the dangerous stockpiles -- originally more than 30,000 tons, mostly sarin, a thin liquid; VX, with the consistency of motor oil, and the molasses-like sulfur mustard.

Absorbed through skin or inhaled as gas, the nerve agents can produce convulsions, paralysis and death. Mustard severely blisters skin and internal membranes.

These agents are packed into bombs and aircraft spray tanks, artillery shells, rockets and landmines, mostly stored beneath earth-covered concrete domes at eight depots across the United States.

When it began its planning in 1985, the Army thought that it could destroy the weapons in nine years for $1.7 billion. Two decades later, it still faces years of work and cumulative costs of more than $25 billion.

"There have been a variety of delays," said Greg Mahall, spokesman for the Army's Chemical Materials Agency.

Chemicals that gelled, crystallized or otherwise degraded demanded special handling, he said. Testing, permits and oversight requirements, at all levels of government, slowed construction and operation. Environmental and other local groups sought court orders to block incineration. Then the Utah plant shut down for eight months in 2002-03 after workers were accidentally exposed to sarin gas.

The pace picked up in recent months as a second incineration facility opened, at the depot in Anniston, Ala. The Army began chemically neutralizing weapons, a newer method, at its Aberdeen, Md., site, and incinerators at the Umatilla, Ore., depot began -- on Sept. 8 -- burning rockets loaded with nerve gas.

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