Madison County

Disposal of sarin delayed

The sarin nerve agent that leaked at the Blue Grass Army Depot on Friday should have been destroyed two months ago, under a plan approved in January.

But the agency responsible for neutralizing the agent has not even started constructing the facility for the destruction.

In January, officials approved a plan that called for the 157 gallons of GB, or sarin, stored at the depot to be drained, neutralized and removed from the facility by May.

But two months after the initial disposal deadline, the sarin is still kept in ton containers at the depot that are still leaking.

“Literally, we are moving as fast as we can,” said Richard Sloan, spokesman for the depot. “It may look like a turtle in the middle of a race, but we are moving as fast as safety dictates.”

Officials announced Friday night that a leak was detected in the storage igloo where the Army stores the sarin. Ambient air under a containment cover in the igloo tested positive for sarin. Toxic-chemical workers went into the igloo Monday to monitor the containers.

Sloan said the leak wasn't a danger to the community or the environment, and the igloo will remain under continuous filtration to ensure that vapor doesn't leak into the atmosphere.

Officials at the depot say the “overly optimistic” neutralization time line has been extended to an undetermined date because of unforeseen delays in obtaining approval from the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection.

Friday's leak originated from the same ton container from which a gallon of sarin escaped in August. The three steel ton containers that hold sarin have been deteriorating because of the corrosive nature of the chemical and the decontaminants it is mixed with.

The August leak was the largest in depot history and prompted Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the agency responsible for the destruction of the depot's chemical weapons stockpile, to adopt a plan in January to dispose of the sarin.

Sarin is an odorless and tasteless liquid with a consistency similar to water. The substance readily evaporates when it is released from a munition, creating a vapor hazard, according to Blue Grass Chemical Activity, the chemical weapons operation at the depot.

The plan to get rid of the sarin, called Operation Swift Solution, was scheduled to begin in March. The operation calls for officials to bring in employees and a chemical-agent transfer system from Maryland to take the sarin from its containers to a 20-gallon on-site reactor, where it will be neutralized. The project will cost about $1.7 million and take 80 days to complete.

But it has taken longer than expected to obtain the proper permits from KDEP to proceed with the disposal, officials say.

Sloan said the approval process has been extensive. ACWA and depot officials have had to submit specific plans for the sarin neutralization and meet state regulations and codes of which they were unaware.

“Unfortunately, the amount of information that has needed to be put together and submitted to the state was unrealized,” said Dave Easter, spokesman for ACWA.

The state has recently granted ACWA temporary authorization to begin setting up equipment for the neutralization, said Kevin Flamm, program manager for ACWA.

“It's clear that this is the first time we've done destructive operations in Kentucky, so everything is very methodical,” he said.

Construction on a foundation for a chemical-agent transfer system should begin next Monday, Easter said.

Flamm declined to give a new deadline for the project.

“(If) for some reason we need to go a little bit slower to make sure the procedures meet our expectation, we'll go a little bit slower,” he said.

Craig Williams, executive director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, said there are always unanticipated setbacks to such projects.

“I think I've grown accustomed to schedule slippage in all facets of this program, so it's not anything surprising,” Williams said of the current delays.

Army officials are doing their best to expedite the removal of the sarin, Williams said.

“Certainly this repeat leak that occurred is indicative that the actions that they're taking are called for,” he said.