Nerve agent destruction to begin

aclark@herald-leader.comNovember 11, 2008 

RICHMOND — Destruction of 157 gallons of nerve agent stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot will begin Wednesday after more than a year of preparation and delays, Army and depot officials announced at a news conference Monday morning.

Officials estimate that the drainage, neutralization and removal of the chemical weapon GB will be finished by February, nine months after the project was initially set to have been completed.

An August 2007 leak in one of the three steel ton containers that hold the GB, also known as sarin, propelled officials to develop a plan to destroy the nerve agent. The leak was the largest in depot history.

Supervisors for operations at the depot said Monday that the ton containers would continue to pose a potential risk if the sarin was not destroyed. They had previously said that the August leak was not a threat to technicians or the surrounding community.

The destruction plan calls for the ton containers to be transferred out of their storage igloos and taken 50 yards across a road to a Chemical Agent Transfer System, said Tim Blades, a director with the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center who will supervise the sarin destruction. The contents of the containers will then be drained and transferred to a reactor for neutralization.

About 1.2 gallons of sarin will be processed at a time. Each batch will take an hour and 15 minutes to neutralize, with most of that time devoted to moving the ton container, Blades said.

Any risk in moving the containers out of the igloo has been minimized, said Lt. Col. David Musgrave, commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity, the chemical weapons operation at the depot.

"Nobody will have anything to worry about," he said. "We're confident that we can do this safely."

The secondary waste that will be produced during neutralization will be stored and shipped to Veolia Environmental Services near Port Arthur, Texas, for final treatment and disposal, said Kevin Flamm, program manager for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the agency responsible for the destruction of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile.

Moving secondary waste to an off-site facility will not necessarily be done when the rest of the depot's chemical weapons are destroyed, Flamm said.

"I do not view this as precedent-setting," he said. "This is a separate and distinct operation."

Sarin is an odorless and tasteless liquid with a consistency similar to water. The substance evaporates when it is released from munitions, creating a vapor hazard, according to Blue Grass Chemical Activity. The chemical in the ton containers is only 40 percent sarin because of the decontaminants it has been mixed with.

The sarin was originally stored in one steel ton container in a storage igloo beginning in the mid-1980s. In 2004, portions of the sarin were transferred to two other containers because the chemical and the decontaminants ate away at the bolts of the original container.

The oldest container has caused the most problems, including one gallon of sarin that escaped from the container Aug. 27, 2007. The leak prompted Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives to consider destroying the sarin in the containers earlier than the rest of the chemical weapons stockpile at the depot.

Officials presented Operation Swift Solution to a citizens' advisory board in December. The plan was to cost $1.7 million and take 80 days to complete, Flamm said in December. The operation was scheduled to end in May.

But delays in preparing documents and receiving authorization from the state pushed the project back to start in November, Flamm said Monday. Flamm said the delay allowed his agency to take extra time to prepare for the destruction.

"It was time well spent," he said.

The budget for the project has also increased to $3.5 million. The year of planning gave organizers a better sense of how much the operation would cost, said Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives.

In addition to the containers, the depot stores more than 51,700 M55 rockets loaded with GB and nearly 4,000 8-inch projectiles. The nerve agent VX, mustard agent and a much larger supply of conventional munitions are also stored there.

Last year, Congress set a goal of 2017 for destruction of the rest of the chemical weapons stockpile when it approved an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill written by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

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