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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.

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