Lessons from Ky. helping rid Syria, world of chemical weapons horror

Craig Williams is the director of the Chemical Weapons Project at the Kentucky Environmental Foundation in Berea.
Craig Williams is the director of the Chemical Weapons Project at the Kentucky Environmental Foundation in Berea.

In October 2013, Syria became the 190th country to agree to both declare and destroy their chemical weapons. Although this was good news for the international community, it unfortunately occurred after a half-dozen alleged uses of these chemicals, including in a deadly attack on Aug. 21, which left 1,400 people — many of them women and children — dead.

Upon joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria ceded control of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which recently was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to rid the planet of an entire class of weapons of mass destruction — the first such undertaking in history.

Now, after taking on that responsibility, huge challenges face the OPCW regarding how to dispose of Syria's stockpiles.

The first hurdle has been getting the materials — all non-weaponized liquid stored in bulk containers — out of Syria in the middle of the ongoing armed conflict.

Materials, shipped to the Syrian port of Latakia, will be loaded on Danish and Norwegian ships, escorted by British, Russian and Chinese war vessels and transported to a port in Italy. There the materials will be transferred to the U.S. ship Cape Ray, which will anchor in international waters and destroy the agent on board via a neutralization process.

Once neutralized — a technology that is used in the U.S. to destroy agents at four of the eight U.S. stockpile sites, including the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond — the remaining waste will be stored on the ship until a final treatment process and location are identified.

This highly hazardous waste is estimated to be approximately 4,000 tons of material. In addition, secondary waste will require treatment somewhere on land, requiring governments and military agencies to gain cooperation with local governments and ordinary citizens when undertaking such an endeavor.

Earlier efforts to solidify agreements for land-based locations for disposal failed due to lack of transparency and cooperation between government agencies and the population at large.

As an advocate for neutralization as a safe and ecologically protective approach, I recently participated in the OPCW's Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in The Hague, Netherlands, to help build confidence in the process from a scientific and safety perspective.

During my visit, I shared a Kentucky success story of how our elected officials, community activists and scientific experts reached consensus on treatment processes and built a model for positive community involvement in the debate over the chemical weapons stockpile at the Blue Grass Army Depot.

This information was welcomed and assisted in the ultimate decision on the final disposition of Syria's chemical agents. The lessons learned here in the commonwealth are contributing once again to the global effort to rid the planet of these horrendous weapons.