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Deadly chemical weapons, buried and lost, lurk under U.S. soil

Cleaning up an Alabama site, one of hundreds where toxic munitions were dumped after World War II, is expected to take decades. It's not even known what exactly is there.

March 21, 2014|By David Zucchino

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — Yanking aside a tree branch, Jason Watson peered into a waterlogged trench. He pointed out discolored metal drums sunk halfway in the water.

"Blister agents, choking agents, blood agents," Watson said, listing the array of chemical weapons inside thousands of metal containers that were buried on this 38,000-acre base after World War II.

Watson is part of a team charged with finding, identifying and eventually cleaning up 17 long trenches that snake for six miles, crammed with World War II chemical agents and munitions. Watson, 37, figures he'll be long retired by the time the job is finished.

"Even if we tried to do this as fast as anybody could ever get it done, we're talking decades and decades," Watson said. "The sheer mass of this stuff is overwhelming."

Even as the United States pushes Syria to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction in a matter of months, this country has struggled for decades with its own deadly stockpiles.

Redstone Arsenal, in the swampy lowlands of northern Alabama, is the largest of the 249 sites in 40 states and territories where chemical weapons remain buried and await cleanup at a cost of billions of dollars. Just outside the Redstone gates is Huntsville, a city of nearly 200,000 residents.

As World War II ended, the United States military collected chemical weapons from Nazi Germany and Japan, as well as from British and American stockpiles. A million chemical weapon munitions marked for storage or disposal were shipped to Redstone, where the U.S. had produced blister agents and other chemical weapons during the war.

Some of the material was burned or blown up. Some was stored in stockpiles. What remained was stacked in trenches and buried.

Today a toxic stew of some of the most lethal weapons ever devised rests beneath the surface: Nazi mustard, a liquid blister agent. Lewisite, another blister agent. Adamsite, a vomiting agent. And possibly Nazi tabun, a nerve agent. Also buried are containers of white phosphorus, chlorine, smoke bombs, tear gas and incendiary bombs.

"This stuff is very dangerous to dig up," Watson said. "It'll hurt you. It will blister you up. If you get that nerve agent on you, it will kill you."

Redstone administrators have been trying since the 1970s to figure out just where all the weapons are buried. In 2010, the base began a state-mandated effort to map its buried chemical weapons sites and eventually dispose of the material.

In a 2012 report, the National Research Council called Redstone "the largest and most challenging" of the buried chemical weapons sites. Communities nationwide are home to these often-little-known repositories.

Several miles southeast of Huntsville at the former Camp Sibert, wide fields used for hunting and cattle grazing cover at least 13 stockpiles of deadly mustard and phosgene gas — directly adjacent to several business and industrial sites.

In the elegant Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, not far from the White House, teams have dug into the earth in a $230-million effort to clean up World War I chemical weapons dumped there. No records were kept, but experts have searched for mustard, arsenic and other chemicals buried and forgotten almost a century ago.

The cleanup team at Redstone is scheduled to start work in the trenches next year, but it won't actually start digging up the material until about 2019. Disposal is due to be completed in 2042, and that's a conservative target. Experts estimate that only about six munitions a day can be safely removed.

The team expects to pull out roughly 388,000 munitions or partial munitions from the trenches. Of that, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 buried chemical weapons are still intact. They are relatively stable in the ground, but volatile once disturbed. An estimated 600,000 nonlethal munitions containers also could be buried here.

In 1946, burying chemical weapons for what was thought to be safe long-term storage seemed like a good idea, especially in rural, sparsely populated northern Alabama.

"At the time, it was the accepted process for getting rid of this stuff safely," said Terry de la Paz, chief of the installation restoration branch at Redstone, who has been wrestling with toxic cleanup since 1995.

"They thought putting it in wet areas was a grand thing to do because it was so soggy and nasty, nobody would go in there," De la Paz said.

Few residents of Huntsville are aware that tons of chemical weapons are buried underground nearby, Watson said. De la Paz said that when they are told, "the first question people ask is, 'Is it near my house?' When the answer is no, they lose interest."

No chemical agents have been detected in groundwater at Redstone so far. However, solvents associated with production and demilitarization of chemical weapons have been found, and they pose a risk to humans, De la Paz said. The Army has imposed tight restrictions on public use of groundwater, she said, and is formulating plans for cleanup.

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