Madison County

Chemical weapons proposals to be addressed in Monday Madison County public hearing

These shells loaded with GB (sarin) nerve agent sit inside a bunker at Blue Grass Army Depot. This photo was taken in 2001.
These shells loaded with GB (sarin) nerve agent sit inside a bunker at Blue Grass Army Depot. This photo was taken in 2001.

The public will have an opportunity to comment Monday night on proposed changes to state permits related to the destruction of chemical weapons in Madison County.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Carl D. Perkins Building on Kit Carson Drive on the Eastern Kentucky University campus. Parking is available next to the Perkins Building.

The meeting will provide information and an opportunity to comment on three specific items in regard to the plant south of Richmond that will destroy nerve and blister agents stockpiled at Blue Grass Army Depot.

One request seeks modifications in the facility that addresses the destruction of hydrogen cyanide. That chemical compound forms as a gas during a step in the plant’s neutralization process that renders the rocket warheads and propellents harmless.

Hydrogen cyanide is potentially deadly to humans. Exposure at lower concentrations can result in nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and other unpleasant symptoms.

While hydrogen cyanide poses no threat to the general public around the depot, it has the potential of escaping into the atmosphere near certain workers, said Craig Williams, chemical weapons project director for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

2020when destruction of chemical weapons begins

Increasing the temperature in a neutralization reactor significantly reduces any hazards through contact, inhalation or ingestion. Furthermore, no new chemicals would have to be introduced and it would minimize changes downstream in the neutralization process.

Another proposed change would remove the so-called “washout process” from the plant.

The destruction process for both rockets and projectiles involves draining nerve agents and flushing the interiors with high-pressure water. But testing found complications with that.

For example, water mixed with the nerve agent VX can form a gel that causes problems with pumping in subsequent disposal steps. Water mixed with the nerve agent GB can create hydrofluoric acid, which leads to corrosion of pipes.

Eliminating the washout step will allow for better control of the destruction process. But more importantly, the destruction process will be safer for workers at the plant, and will reduce the number of entries that an average worker has to make into a toxic area.

A third request seeks regulatory approval to move and sample mustard munitions using personnel and equipment from the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. Mustard is a blister agent that causes blisters on the skin, scars on the eyes, and inflammation of the airways.

A random sample of mustard munitions will be tested to ensure that they do, in fact, contain blister agent, Williams said. This is required as part of an international treaty under the which the weapons are to be destroyed.

The plant’s construction was finished this year. However, system installation and the testing of those systems will mean the plant won’t begin actual destruction of weapons until 2020. Final destruction of the weapons is scheduled in 2023.