Chemical weapons stock sparks debate over safety, jobs


by Alex Schuman

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 11:11 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 6 at 9:27 AM

RICHMOND, Ky. (WHAS11) -- A chemical weapons leak happened at the Blue Grass Army Depot just last week.  EPA inspectors who regularly visit the base in Richmond, Ky. say the weapons are aging.

Some of the weapons are so old the liquid nerve agent inside has turned rock solid.  None of the leaks have endangered the people nearby yet, but the chemical stockpile remains illegal under international law.

The stockpile includes the same nerve agents used on civilians in Syria.  Secretary of State John Kerry has said he expects Syria’s weapons to be destroyed within a year.  So if they can be destroyed so easily – why are they still in Kentucky two decades after the U.S. Army laid out a plan to destroy the weapons?

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Donna Williams lives right across the street from 520 tons of deadly nerve agent.

“It’s just a normal every day thing,” Williams said.

The internationally prohibited mustard, VX, and sarin gas has been there her whole life.

“I really don’t even think about,” Williams said.

Her husband used to work security at the Blue Grass Army Depot, which is where the chemical weapons are store.  Some locally, see the storage facility as an employer and would rather see the weapons stay.

City officials see it as a danger that created the need for special air systems in local schools, and city-wide drills.

The federal government began storing chemical weapons at the Depot in the 1940s. Since then, Kentucky maintains just two percent of America’s original stockpile.  The other remaining eight percent sits in Pueblo, CO.

The reason the deadly nerve agents still exist in these two places is actually because of safety concerns.

“Had the army listened to us back in 1985 when they announced what they were gonna do and we said – wait a minute there’s got to be a better way.  We would not be talking about this now.  We probably would be done or close to done,” Craig Williams of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation said.

Williams dedicates almost all his time to dealing with the Depot.  He helped lead a fight back in 1985 to keep the army from building an incineration plant in Richmond.

Similar facilities ended up in Alabama and Utah.  Army officials wanted to use the incineration method at every depot, and people like Williams feared the toxins that can float out into the air.

“If you look at a place like Utah where they had 45 percent of the U.S. stockpile at the time,” he said.  “Their smokestack was in the middle of the desert.  The one they wanted to build here was 1.3 miles from a middle school with 600 kids.”

Citizens like Williams and members of Congress passed a law in 1997 creating a new program.

“It was decided that the final two sites – the site here in Kentucky and the site in Colorado would be taken out from under the Army’s control and put under that program based on the citizen and congressional involvement,” Greg Mahall of the U.S. Army Chemical Weapons Activity said.

The new program would neutralize the weapon, which is when they mix the nerve agents with water and caustic until they become benign. 

Another setback came when Pentagon officials temporarily cut off funding 2004, and pushed money towards the facilities incinerating the weapons.

“You need to understand that when funding is cut on a major program like this - when the funding’s restored you don’t just pick up from where you left off,” Williams said.  “The schedule impact of funding cuts stretches out much further than year or two years the funding has been cut.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and President Barack Obama each pushed for a renewed effort to speed up destruction 2012.  McConnell spent time through the past two decades advocating to make the site safer. 

In an open records request made by WHAS – the EPA has cited the depot for leaks, but none of them were bad enough to pose a health risk to people around the base.

A new plan was announced in Oct. to use explosives to destroy more than half of the mustard rounds, which turned solid.

“If you don’t use that – it would require what they call hot entries.  Where workers in moon suits would have to enter into a hot area, and try to extract the bursters from the middle of these rounds with hand tools,” Williams said.

The 2013 federal budget fully-funded the new plant designed to destroy the weapons.  

Officials expect the destruction of the weapons will take until 2023 to be finished.  According to Williams, destruction in the U.S. takes longer because our chemical stockpile is weaponized.

The chemicals in Syria are sitting in barrels and are not loaded into rockets, according to Williams.

A study is currently underway to figure out how to employ the workforce the clean-up will leave jobless.  Local officials plan to try to privatize parts of the property and hope any new jobs can satisfy a person like Donna Williams who is more worried about people’s jobs than the weapons across the street. 

“To me, living here is just as safe as getting my car and driving,” she said.