Decision on chemical weapons at Blue Grass depot awaits year-long study

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJune 13, 2012 

RICHMOND — "Look before you leap," the saying goes, and that applies to the proposal to explode 15,000 mustard munitions inside steel vessels at Blue Grass Army Depot.

Local officials learned Wednesday that an environmental assessment of the proposal will take about a year to complete.

The assessment is required by the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. The 42-year-old law requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of their proposed actions, outline alternatives and accept public comment.

No decision on whether to explode mustard munitions will be made until the assessment is finished, said Jeff Brubaker, project manager for the plant that will destroy chemical weapons stored at the Madison County depot. Brubaker spoke at a quarterly meeting of officials to discuss issues surrounding the storage and ultimate destruction of chemical weapons.

The assessment will consider impacts of a thermal pollution-abatement system and how exhaust releases from the vessels would impact the environment. The assessment will also look into possible impacts on human health, Brubaker said.

The assessment will be conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee because that complex has the technical resources to do it, Brubaker said. Oak Ridge is known for its work in the 1940s to separate and produce uranium and plutonium for use in developing a nuclear weapon, but today the lab does all kinds of research, including for homeland security purposes. No nuclear material is stored at Blue Grass Army Depot, Brubaker said.

Oak Ridge performed a similar assessment for another weapons depot in Pueblo, Colo., where the public-comment period recently ended.

A sampling of 96 mustard rounds X-rayed last year at the Madison County depot determined that 85 percent had at least a 30 percent solidification of mustard agent, or "heel," in the projectiles.

The presence of heel in the 155mm mustard shells at other facilities across the country has led to complications and delays in the destruction process because solidified agent is difficult to remove. Trying to remove that agent by hand poses a greater risk to workers than just exploding the rounds in steel vessels.

The technology to explode chemical weapons in steel vessels was used to destroy 2,700 mustard munitions in Anniston, Ala., Brubaker said. That was the only domestic use of the technology, although it has been used by other countries.

In other news, officials learned that total employment for the construction of the chemical weapons plant is 939 people. Of those, 863 are employed at Madison County, and another 76 are employed at sites building equipment for the Madison County plant. Those off-site locations are in San Diego, Pasco, Wash., Columbus, Ohio, and Frederick, Md.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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