Madison County

McConnell: Communities, local activist share credit for getting rid of chemical weapons

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell credited the Madison County and Central Kentucky communities Wednesday with getting policy changed to allow safer disposal of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond.

Speaking Wednesday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the start of the chemical weapon destruction at the depot, McConnell called the community a “force.”

More than 500 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard, sarin and VX, have been stored at the Madison County depot since the 1940s. These weapons were going to be incinerated in the 1980s, but neighbors opposed the method.

“When I was sworn into the Senate, one of my very first visits was right here at the Blue Grass Army Depot,” McConnell said. “At the time, we were in the midst of what seemed to be an impossible crisis. The community was deeply concerned about a school co-located with a deadly storage facility. Frequent reports of leaks caused us all to worry about our children and neighbors.”

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Craig Williams, the co-chair for the Kentucky Chemical Demilitarization Citizens’ Advisory Commission and Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, was among the area residents who were concerned with how the weapons were initially going to be destroyed.

He helped start a discussion that led to new policies being created.

“The Army spent years telling us how the process was safe and it wouldn’t leak, until they had the first confirmed leak,” he said in March. “To change a Pentagon program takes a lot of time. It’s like turning a battleship in a bathtub.”

McConnell said during his remarks Wednesday all Kentuckians owe Williams “a great debt of gratitude.” He said no community has ever had a more effective leader looking out for their interests.

“With singular focus and an unwavering drive, Craig poured over literally every document, every detail, and literally every inch of Blue Grass. He became the leading expert,” McConnell said Wednesday. “Time and again, Craig showed an uncanny ability to find answers nobody wanted him to see.”

McConnell got a provision in a 1986 defense appropriations bill to prevent the Army from transferring more chemical munitions to the depot, according to a timeline supplied by his office. Ten years later, he created the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment program to identify and test technologies to use for chemical weapon destruction, which found six options.

Alternative technology was later approved After years of construction and practicing, the disposal process will begin in June.

Projectiles carrying a chemical that converts to mustard gas will be eliminated first. Nerve agent weapon destruction will start in September. Operations are scheduled to finish in 2023.

McConnell said he interfered with the Pentagon bureaucracy to get results.

“We are blessed to live in a country that truly values freedom and individual expression,” he said Wednesday. “Our system is at its best when citizens and entire communities lead. And when Kentuckians rally to a cause, it makes the job of people like me much easier. I just have to listen and carry out your will.”

Williams was thrilled to get the project underway.

“When I first started this, I had my son who is now 35. He was 8 months old and on my hip,” Williams said in March. “I said, ‘This is why I’m doing it.’ So I’ve been following through on that and I think it’s a good effort.”