Madison County

U.S. says destruction of chemicals at Blue Grass will take longer, cost more

The U.S. Defense Department said Tuesday that it will take another $2 billion and another two years to rid Kentucky and Colorado of their stockpiles of chemical weapons.

But the director a Berea-based watchdog group said he is confident that the nerve and blister agents at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County can be destroyed before 2023, which is the revised completion date for their destruction. The previous completion date was 2021.

The revised cost for both the Kentucky and Colorado destruction programs is now $10.6 billion, up from a combined previous estimate of $8 billion.

The cost to destroy the weapons in Kentucky alone was increased from $4.5 billion to $5.3 billion, according to Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA), the government agency that oversees the destruction of chenical stockpiles in Kentucky and Colorado. That is a "life cycle" cost that includes design of the plant that will destroy the weapons through construction, operations and its ultimate closing.

The completion date for final destruction of the Pueblo, Colo., stockpile was revised from 2017 to 2019.

The revised cost is essentially a contingency budget, said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the Berea organization that monitors the progress and safety of chemical-destruction efforts.

"We don't expect the projects to take this long or cost this much," Williams said in a statement. "But in order to ensure the funds are there, just in case they are needed, the elongated schedule was brought forward."

The United States is required to provide its most current schedule estimates next month to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That organization, based in The Hague, Netherlands, conducts international inspections of sites that handle chemical weapons.

In late November, the organization voted to approve a measure that will not penalize the United States for missing an April 29, 2012, deadline for the destruction of its nerve and blister agents. The deadline was imposed by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty.

The chemical weapons in Madison County are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre depot. Blue Grass has only 2 percent of the nation's original chemical stockpile, the smallest of nine storage sites.

Stockpiles have been destroyed in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Utah and in the Johnson Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Pueblo, Colo., and Madison County are the only remaining sites, and Williams said Kentucky was always scheduled to be last because it contained the smallest amount of weapons.

The plant that will destroy chemical weapons south of Richmond is half complete. Destruction is scheduled to start in 2018.

The revised cost and timeline schedule is the result of last year's congressional review initiated because the cost of ACWA had exceeded previous estimates by 25 percent.

The defense department recertified the program, in part because it was deemed critical to national security and there were no alternatives to do the job at less cost.

The new estimates represent a conservative approach based on the experience of earlier chemical-destruction facilities.

Williams said disposal efforts in other U.S. locations took more time and resources than initially predicted.

When the program to destroy the entire U.S. chemical weapons stockpile was announced in 1985, "they projected that the entire stockpile would be destroyed — using incineration — by 1994 at a total cost nationally of $1.86 billion," Williams said.

ACWA and Williams said the destruction program could face unanticipated hurdles, such as procuring the necessary equipment or personnel, that could cause delays. It's better to give The Hague an extended timeline now.

"We'd rather go there and say 'We'll be done in 2023' and then go back in 2020 and say we're done," Williams said in an interview.

Williams said Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and local officials in Madison County were briefed and were aware that a revised cost and time schedule would be announced.

"The U.S. is unwavering in its commitment to achieving 100 percent destruction of its chemical weapons as soon as possible" but while keeping public safety, environmental protection and international transparency as priorities, said Conrad Whyne, the ACWA program executive officer.

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