Madison County

Group that fought plans to incinerate chemical weapons is focus of movie opening in Richmond

M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent are stored in a secure bunker  at Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond, KY. Photo taken during a  media tour of the facility on September 6, 2001. Photo by Pablo  Alcala | Staff
M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent are stored in a secure bunker at Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond, KY. Photo taken during a media tour of the facility on September 6, 2001. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Herald-Leader

The director of a new documentary about the disposal of chemical weapons in Madison County said it "is a great success story and a great Kentucky story with global implications."

"This tiny group of Kentuckians basically took on the Pentagon, the world's largest bureaucracy, and won," Ben Evans said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "That's not something that happens every day.

"Just because a challenge looks impossible doesn't mean that it is," Evans said, quoting Craig Williams of Berea, a central figure in the movie. "With enough determination and focus and willingness to stay solutions-oriented, we can really make a lot of progress on what seems like some really intractable problems we face as a country and as a planet. That's a really encouraging message."

Nerve, which has its premiere screening Friday night in Richmond, tells how a small group of Kentuckians fought for a safer method than incineration for disposal of chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot.

The free screening begins at 7 p.m. Friday at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts. Doors will open at 6 p.m.

In addition to the screening, Lexington cellist Ben Sollee will perform. And there will be a discussion panel opening with a recorded message from Sen. Mitch McConnell and Gov. Steve Beshear.

Evans, 45, of Louisville gives credit to Williams for pushing for the safe disposal of chemical weapons. Williams, a Vietnam veteran, was a woodworker making kitchen cabinets when the Army said in 1984 that an incinerator would be built to destroy the chemical weapons stockpile at the depot.

Residents wanted the weapons gone and many thought incineration was a fast, safe solution. Williams disagreed.

So he gathered support from local governments and began meeting with people at other chemical disposal sites.

The Army eventually backed down from its plan to incinerate the weapons and decided instead to neutralize them through a complex chemical process.

The plant to destroy the Madison County weapons was completed this summer but testing of various systems is under way.

Evans said Williams has "really been the one carrying the torch on this for 30 years."

"There were a lot of people who were instrumental in the beginning but he's been the consistent player who's taken it through all its stages from a local issue to a national issue to an international issue," Evans said. "He would be the first to tell you it's been a group effort and that it's not been a solo effort by any means."

The documentary is a project of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation as the nonprofit organization marks its 25th anniversary. Williams was director of the Berea-based foundation from 1990 to 2008 and remains a volunteer staffer and board member.

In March the foundation launched an indiegogo.com crowd-funding campaign to raise money to finish the documentary. The money was raised in less than two months from 280 donors.

The movie will have an Oct. 23 screening at Bellarmine University's Cralle Theater in Louisville. Evans hopes to have a screening in Lexington in the near future.

The EKU Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship Program is a presenting sponsor for the Friday night program.

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