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Weapons facility progress noted

RICHMOND — The destruction of the chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot has loomed over the heads of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Congressman Ben Chandler since both men entered office.

Now well into their political careers, the Kentucky lawmakers said Thursday they are pleased with the progress of the construction of a facility that will destroy the chemical weapons.

McConnell, R-Ky., and Chandler, D-Ky., who last year successfully pushed for a 2017 deadline of the weapons disposal, addressed the public after a tour of the depot’s Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant.

“This is an issue that transcends any kind of politics,” Chandler said. “This is an issue about our people.”

During their brief addresses in Richmond City Hall, McConnell and Chandler said they thought the 2017 deadline for the disposal of the weapons can be met, despite a July report from the Department of Defense that says the deadline won’t be met unless officials consider other options.

The lawmakers said it will take more money and cooperation with the Pentagon to finish the project on time.

McConnell and Chandler also took aim at the Pentagon, which they say considers the destruction plan a low priority.

“If we left it up to the Pentagon, we wouldn’t have anything out there (at the Depot),” McCon­nell said in reference to the project.

McConnell said the demilitarization of the chemical weapons has been a problem since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate more than 20 years ago.

Workers have started constructing buildings on the site and pouring concrete.

“It is certainly gratifying after all these years and years and years of discussion to actually see something happening,” McConnell said.

Chandler said he was astonished by the amount of construction that has been completed.

Seeing the site “just crystallized in my mind how this issue has moved from an issue of whether this was going to be done to when it will be done,” Chandler said.

Three chemical weapons — mustard agent, VX and GB, also known as sarin — are stored at the depot, along with a stockpile of munitions.

Last month, the mustard agent leaked twice within two weeks from separate containers. A year ago, a gallon of sarin leaked from a ton container in which it was stored, making the spill the largest in depot history.

McConnell and Chandler deferred comments about the leaks to Craig Williams, the director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group. Williams said the leaks were intermittent and hadn’t increased over the years.

He said there will be risks as long as the weapons are stored at the depot, but the destruction can’t be completed before 2017.

“Anything inside that date is overly optimistic,” he said.