Problems Plague Army Weapons-Burning

Sarin, contained here in canisters, is a deadly chemical that could leak during incineration.
Sarin, contained here in canisters, is a deadly chemical that could leak during incineration. (By Nancy Taggart -- Richmond Register Via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

In 1987, the Army estimated it would cost $2 billion to dispose of the 27,768 metric tons of chemical weapons in its stockpile.

Today, the price has mushroomed to $28 billion, and the military is about a third of the way through the job. An array of problems -- including technical challenges and protests from community activists concerned about the impact of burning the weapons -- has dogged the progress. In May, officials announced the Army will be unable to destroy all the weapons by 2012 -- which would be a five-year extension to the current deadline.

"We underestimated the job, the complexity of the job and this high-hazard environment we have to operate in," said Michael A. Parker, director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency.

The United States has the second-largest inventory of chemical weapons next to Russia, which has 40,000 tons of warfare agents and is also struggling to meet the 2007 disposal deadline under an international treaty dating to 1997. Both countries are seeking five-year extensions.

The Army is incinerating weapons in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, and has finished work on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Under pressure from activists, the Pentagon has opted for chemically neutralizing warfare agents in Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky and Maryland. It has completed work in Maryland, but plant construction in Colorado and Kentucky will only begin this year. By Parker's estimate, the chemical neutralization facilities will not finish disposing warfare agents until 2014.

"We are making progress every day," Parker said. "Some days are better than others."

Congress mandated disposal of the weapons a decade ago, and ever since, the Defense Department has been battling environmental activists and some members of Congress over its reliance on burning the chemicals.

Pentagon officials have argued that incineration is most efficient. But Craig E. Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Berea, Ky., said that emissions could have lasting effects on communities such as his. Working with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), he has spent nearly two decades pushing the Army to develop a chemical neutralization approach.

"We basically ended up forcing them to consider alternative disposal methods," McConnell said. "Environmental cleanup, I guess, is not high in the mission statement" of the Defense Department.

Parker said the Army does not oppose chemical neutralization but was simply taking a pragmatic approach.

"Incineration was a much more mature technology in the late '80s and early '90s," he said. "The department was put in an impossible bind. The Congress mandated some very aggressive disposal schedules, and in order to comply with the law the department pursued the single option that was available, which was to use incineration technology."

The approach has produced mixed results. Chemical agents have escaped three times from incinerator plant stacks and twice from plant equipment, Parker said, adding that the release exceeded the permitted federal limit only once.

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