RICHMOND — Workers next month plan to start destroying three leaky containers of diluted nerve agent stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot, a federal official said Tuesday.
Kevin Flamm, who manages the Department of Defense program responsible for destroying the aging chemical weapons, said that if things go as hoped, "Operation Swift Solution" could be completed by year's end.
That would be historic, marking the first actual destruction of nerve agent at the Richmond depot since efforts to eliminate the materials began more than two decades ago. But it would be only a first, tentative step toward the much bigger job of destroying all 523 tons of deadly chemical agents stockpiled at the depot — a process now expected to extend beyond 2017.
And, like many other steps involving the chemical agents at Richmond, Operation Swift Solution promises to raise some issues of its own.
Still, Craig Williams, whose grass-roots Chemical Weapons Working Group has long campaigned for safe destruction of the chemical weapons, called Swift Solution an important step.
"I think it's critical because this is the component of the overall stockpile that poses the greatest immediate risk to the community," Williams said Tuesday. "So, it's appropriate to address it in short order, as a project separate from the overall stockpile."
Swift Solution is intended to destroy three metal containers holding 157 gallons of diluted GB, an agent that turns into an odorless, tasteless, but deadly nerve gas when it is released from munitions.
The small amount of material involved basically consists of GB that was removed from munitions at the army depot here over the past 20 years for sampling purposes. Although it has been diluted with some neutralization chemicals, it remains highly dangerous.
Officials decided last year that it had to be destroyed after workers discovered that the GB was corroding the storage containers and causing leaks.
Various issues, such as getting proper approvals from the state of Kentucky, have slowed Operation Swift Solution since early this year.
But Flamm, manager of the government's Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, told a citizens advisory group on Tuesday that his goal is to start destruction sometime in October.
The plan is to place the GB containers inside a large, sealed chemical-transfer chamber. The nerve agent then would be drained from the containers and placed in a reactor for chemical neutralization.
According to Flamm, the process has been used before at other storage facilities, and works well. Unless unforeseen problems crop up, such as inclement weather, the 157 gallons of GB should be neutralized by the end of the year, he said.
But neutralization will leave behind some potentially troublesome byproducts. According to a presentation to the advisory panel Tuesday, they will include about 8,000 gallons of corrosive liquid waste, about 1,600 gallons of non-hazardous liquid, and more than 40 drums of solid waste.
Flamm compared the leftover materials to industrial wastes, which he said would pose no hazards to communities around the depot.
But authorities still must decide what to do with the wastes. Three possibilities are being studied: temporarily storing the waste at the depot; transporting it to some other facility for final disposal, or bringing a mobile processing unit to the depot and disposing of the material on site.
Flamm said Tuesday that his office favors transporting the waste for off-site disposal, either at a facility in Texas or one in Utah.
Williams, however, says his group opposes transporting the waste, and thinks a mobile disposal unit should be brought to Richmond to destroy it there.