RICHMOND — Under the gun to destroy the U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles — and now all but certain to miss their deadline — Army officials have a plan to hasten the process: Blow some of them up.
The Army would use explosives to destroy some of the Cold War-era weapons at two sites — the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond and a second in Colorado. Residents near both fought down another combustion-based plan years ago.
Some who live near the two installations worry it's a face-saving measure, driven by pressure from U.S. adversaries, that puts the safety of residents below the politics of diplomacy and won't help the United States meet an already-blown deadline.
Environmentalists who years ago successfully blocked a plan to burn weapons containing mustard agent at the depots in Richmond and Pueblo, Colo., say blowing up some of the weapons in a detonation chamber would be worse than burning them.
They argue the plan violates the Army's promise to dispose of the mustard agent at the two sites by neutralizing it — a process that involves mixing it with water and either bacteria or a combination of fuel and superheated air — and taking it to a hazardous waste dump. That takes longer than simply destroying the weapons by explosion.
"It's taking a bad technology we fought for a decade and a half to get them to abandon here and telling us now they want to put in something worse," said Ross Vincent of the Sierra Club in Colorado.
Only 500 to 1,000 of the weapons at Pueblo are believed to be leaking or in need of immediate attention. Still, the Army wants to use explosives to destroy all 125,000 of them.
The Blue Grass depot has far fewer chemical weapons than Pueblo but a wider variety, including the deadly nerve gases sarin and VX. Of the 15,500 mustard rounds housed at Blue Grass, as many as 9,300 could be corroded and therefore considered a risk to workers if they leaked and required emergency repairs.
Craig Williams, who lives near the Blue Grass depot and directs the citizens' organization Chemical Weapons Working Group, said he doesn't necessarily oppose the Army's plan to use explosives for that depot's entire mustard stockpile, assuming there is a high concentration of corroded containers. However, he believes Colorado activists are justified in opposing it there.
Chemical weapons have horrified the world since they blinded and crippled thousands of soldiers in World War I. Mustard gas can disable an opposing army by causing severe, painful but non-fatal blistering. It can also cause cancer, and even low levels of exposure may threaten workers and the public.
Scientists developed even deadlier chemical bombs during and after World War II. All of them were supposed to have been destroyed in the United States by 1994 under a directive from Congress. In 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention enacted an international deadline of 2012. The United States now acknowledges it will certainly miss that, too.
There were once nine U.S. chemical stockpiles. Three have been eliminated through incineration or neutralization. Four incinerators remain active, which means 90 percent of the American arsenal is either gone or being destroyed.
The storage sites in Richmond and Pueblo are the only two yet to begin eliminating their chemical weapons and won't even start until the treaty's 2012 deadline passes. Blue Grass is now scheduled to be the nation's last chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed, beginning in 2018 and finishing in 2021.
Neutralization will be used for most of the weapons. But the Army surprised citizen groups late last year with a plan to supplement those efforts by exploding some mustard weapons both places, and possibly even some nerve agent in Kentucky.
While Vincent and others worry about the environmental impact of exploding the weapons, they also question the government's justification and timing for the change of plans.
The State Department acknowledges foreign pressure to show progress played a role. By using explosives, officials say, the nation can continue destroying weapons during some periods when all the U.S. sites otherwise would have been idle.
The department denies, however, that criticism from Iran, Cuba and other U.S. adversaries at a December conference directly prompted the policy shift announced a few weeks later. It's a matter of showing the world the United States takes its treaty obligations seriously, said Robert Mikulak, the U.S. representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
"We report every quarter on what we have destroyed, and it is very difficult to explain to others that we are working as hard as possible if that column shows zero for several years at a time," he said.
The Army acknowledges that exploding chemical weapons in Pueblo and Richmond will at best shave a few months off the completion date and still come nowhere close to complying with the treaty.
"I wouldn't say it provides much acceleration," Kevin Flamm, the Army's program manager for neutralization operations at the two sites, said during briefings in December. "What it does is give us increased confidence we'll be able to achieve the dates we announced."
Flamm said using explosives wasn't his first choice either.
"We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes," he said. "Frankly there isn't any other technologies we've found that can eliminate these weapons safely and environmentally friendly in the time frame we're looking at."
Irene Kornelly, chairwoman of a citizens advisory panel for the weapons site in Pueblo, remains concerned that the plan is being driven not by local safety but by diplomats who have sent orders down the chain of command until they ended up on the doorstep of the storage sites in Pueblo and Richmond.
"Let them come out and explain to us why folks in Kentucky and Colorado are the ones who have to bear the burden for the entire country under our diplomatic situation," she said.