September 13, 2013

For U.S. chemical weapons arsenal, lessons from Syria

By Josh Lederman / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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In this January 2010 photo Debra Michaels, chemical operations manager, inspects mustard agent shells in one of the bunkers at the Pueblo Army Chemical Storage facility in Pueblo, Colo.

AP

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The move toward destroying the United States' chemical weapons started in the 1970s, building momentum in the 1980s when Congress directed the Defense Department to start eliminating the stockpile.

That commitment became an international obligation when the U.S. signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and ratified it four years later. That started the clock on a 10-year period in which the U.S. was supposed to destroy the rest of its chemical weapons.

The process is complex.

The two basic methods — chemical neutralization and incineration — both require specialized facilities. Using incineration, chemicals must be heated to thousands of degrees. Decades-old storage containers can be leaky and tough to handle. Destruction produces highly hazardous waste that must be carefully stored. And assembled weapons, like those chemicals already loaded into rockets and packed with explosives, pose their own dangers.

The Army used to destroy chemical weapons at nine sites across the country. By January 2012, troops had completed 90 percent of the job, and only two active sites now remain.

In an arid stretch of desert about 40 miles south of Colorado Springs, Colo., sits the Pueblo Chemical Depot. The Army says that's where about 2,600 tons of mustard gas is situated in projectiles and mortar cartridges. The destruction facility is finished but still being tested, with plans to start operations in 2015. The depot employs more than 900 people and is expected to end its work by 2019.

The other site, just outside Richmond, Ky., isn't as far along. The destruction plant at the Blue Grass Army Depot is only about 70 percent complete as of this summer, and the Army doesn't expect to open it until 2020. Work at Blue Grass to destroy 523 tons of nerve and blister agents stored in rockets and projectiles should wrap up by 2023, if everything goes as planned.

The U.S. has long since missed its original 2007 deadline, which was extended to 2012, then missed again. Russia is behind schedule too.

Such are the odds as the U.S. and its allies turn to Syria and demand swift, complete and verifiable action to ensure never again can Assad use poison gas.

"Under ideal conditions, complete Syrian cooperation and having a country that's ready, willing and able to receive the material, it's theoretically possible," said Greg Koblenz, a chemical weapons expert at George Mason University. "In the middle of a very brutal civil war, it's highly implausible."

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