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Depot weapons disposal delayed

RICHMOND — The anticipated start date of chemical weapons destruction at the Blue Grass Army Depot has slipped four years behind schedule, according to a recent report from the agency overseeing the disposal.

Increased costs for the destruction, a greater need for materials, the redesign of a demilitarization building and a budget that has exceeded approved costs are some of the factors that could delay the process to destroy the chemical weapons from January 2017 to February 2021, said Kevin Flamm, program manager for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the government agency overseeing the destruction of stockpiles in Madison County and Pueblo, Colo.

Chemical weapons neutralization will also be delayed by nearly two years in Pueblo, according to a Nov. 17 news release from the Department of Defense, of which ACWA is a part. Destruction at that facility is now projected to begin in December 2016.

Under the current outline for the project, the 523 tons of nerve and blister agent stored at the depot in Richmond would be destroyed by 2023. That deadline can still be met with some financial adjustments to the operation plan, Flamm said.

"I don't see any reason why we can't achieve that date," he said.

ACWA adopted the current plan in April 2007, seven months before Congress approved a bill that requires the nation's chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed by Dec. 31, 2017. The Defense Department will submit a new budget plan in February that would take the congressional deadline into account.

A new plan could also help reconcile differences between the congressionally mandated deadline and what can feasibly be done to accelerate operations at the depot, Flamm said.

The department will also factor into its plan this latest delay in order to accelerate operations, Flamm said.

The new law forces the department to more closely adhere to the deadline, said Craig Williams, director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group.

"We're in a state of ever-changing realities in terms of funding and scheduling," he said.

Behind schedule

Flamm notified the Pentagon of the delays in a report he was required to submit when projects fall behind more than six months. Next month, Flamm will submit another report to discuss how the 2023 deadline can be upheld.

The budget for the current project in Madison County is $3.8 billion, according to ACWA. But it will take more money to adhere to the 2023 completion goal of the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, the facility where VX, GB and mustard agent will be destroyed, Flamm said.

Additional funding would allow the facility to operate 24 hours a day, which would accelerate the destruction process, he said. A larger budget will also allow Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the project's contractor, to more aggressively and efficiently transition the pilot plant from construction to operation.

"All these things will essentially require more money," Flamm said.

Lawmakers and special-interest groups have spent decades trying to get rid of the VX, mustard agent and GB stored in the depot, just a few miles south of downtown Richmond. There have been periodic leaks over the years, but no injuries have been reported. Nevertheless, officials have said the chemical weapons will pose a threat to Central Kentuckians until they are destroyed.

The United States also is obligated to dispose of its weapons stockpile by 2012 under the terms of the international Chemical Warfare Convention Treaty, but the government has acknowledged that the deadline will not be met.

Leakers being destroyed

On a separate issue, destruction of 157 gallons of GB, also known as sarin, began Nov. 12. Officials are neutralizing this portion of the depot's sarin stockpile before destroying the rest because of the deterioration of the three steel ton containers in which it is stored. In August 2007, one of the containers was responsible for the largest leak in depot history.

In an effort to accelerate the chemical weapons destruction, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote an amendment to the Fiscal 2008 Defense Appropriations Bill to implement a 2017 deadline. Congress approved the bill in November 2007.

The Department of Defense has doubted that the new deadline can be met at the depot and the Pueblo facility. In a report released this summer, the department said it would have to consider new options to reach the deadline, including transporting portions of chemical weapons to other sites for destruction.

Flamm said it is not feasible to destroy all of the chemical weapons at the depot in nine years.

"I just don't think it's realistic to complete operations at Blue Grass by 2017 at this time," he said.

McConnell reiterated in a statement last week that the deadline is now law.

"This deadline must be met by the Department of Defense," he said.