The commander of Blue Grass Army Depot has issued a preliminary finding concluding that "no significant impacts" to the environment or people would occur if more than 15,000 mustard rounds were exploded inside steel detonation chambers at the Madison County facility.
Area residents have a chance to comment on that finding through July 24, but a public meeting Tuesday in Richmond will give them an opportunity to ask questions and submit comments.
A final decision on the use of explosive detonation technology, or EDT, is expected by the end of the year.
An environmental assessment released last month "appears to be a thorough and exhaustive examination of the potential impacts" of deploying the technology, said Craig Williams, co-chairman of the Kentucky Chemical Destruction Citizens Advisory Board. He also is director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea-based organization that monitors the destruction of chemical weapons in the United States.
A 2011 X-ray assessment of the Blue Grass chemical weapons stockpile confirmed the solidification of mustard agent in a significant number of 155mm projectiles. That renders them unsuitable for robotic disassembly and processing in the pilot plant, under construction at the depot, that will be used to destroy nerve agent.
These problematic munitions require a different approach for their destruction. Trying to remove the mustard agent by hand, for instance, poses a greater risk to workers than exploding the rounds in steel vessels.
The mustard agent stored at the depot was made from 1941 to 1943 in Maryland. The agent was put into 155mm projectiles in the 1940s, and those projectiles have been in storage at the depot since then.
Most of the munitions are in good condition, but a few have developed leaks. All the leaking projectiles have been placed inside "overpack" containers and are stored separately from other stockpile munitions.
Of the total 15,492 155mm mustard projectiles stored at the depot, fewer than 200 are in overpack containers.
Under the action proposed in an environmental assessment, the depot's entire inventory of 155mm mustard projectiles — including those in overpack containers, plus two bottles — would be destroyed by explosive detonation technology.
Based on current estimates, it would take 38 weeks to destroy the mustard stockpile that way and eliminate the need for them to go through the pilot plant. That would allow the plant to "focus solely" on the destruction of GB and VX nerve agents, according to an executive summary of the environmental assessment. Construction of the pilot plant is expected to be finished by 2016, and the plant is expected to become operational in 2019.
There are four types of explosive detonation technology under consideration. Three are manufactured and operated by private industry, while the Army has a fourth.
Depending on the method selected, the detonation facility would require more people to operate (up to 210) than to build (up to 50), but the construction workers would be on site longer (27 months) than the operations workers (38 weeks).
Because the detonations would occur inside thick-walled steel containment vessels, "any noise generated by the detonation process would be immediately dampened," the environmental assessment says.
Williams said the primary concern of the Citizens Advisory Board "was evaluating the risks associated with workers having to manually disassemble thousands of weapons due to their age, compared to the risks associated with using EDT. Our recommendation strongly favored the use of EDT. This assessment reassures me that we made the correct recommendation."
The technology to explode chemical weapons in steel vessels was used to destroy 2,700 mustard munitions in Anniston, Ala. That was the only domestic use of the technology, although it has been used by other countries.
IF YOU GO
Public meeting on destroying mustard rounds stored at Bluegrass Army Depot
Purpose: Discuss proposed use of explosive detonation technology
When: 6 to 8 p.m. July 16
Where: Eastern Kentucky University's Carl D. Perkins Building, Kit Carson Drive, Richmond.
Other commenting options: Accepted through July 24 by:
Fax: (410) 436-6026
Mail: Program Executive Office, ACWA, 5183 Blackhawk Rd., Attn: SFAE-ACW-RM, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. 21010-5424
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader.