RICHMOND, Ky. — Destruction of chemical weapons stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot won't be complete by a government-imposed 2017 deadline unless officials consider other options, including moving chemical weapons to destruction facilities in Alabama and Arkansas, according to the Department of Defense.
The mention of transporting the weapons drew quick criticism from watchdog groups and members of Congress, who said moving the weapons would be too risky and too controversial.
"It's a perfect example of a waste of money, time and effort," Craig Williams, executive director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, said of the research into the transportation option. "All it does is create controversy."
The Department of Defense offered its findings in a June 2008 semi-annual report to Congress that details the progress of the country's chemical demilitarization program.
The report outlines three options for accelerating destruction of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond and the Pueblo Chemical Depot, a similar facility in Colorado:
- Enacting performance incentives.
- Transporting portions of the stockpiles to chemical weapons destruction facilities in Utah, Oregon, Alabama and Arkansas.
- Accelerating the destruction schedule at Pueblo and Blue Grass by using more manpower and funding.
Transporting the chemical weapons stockpile would be the most intensive process to complete. Congress would have to change laws to allow transportation of chemical munitions across state lines and address federal and state environmental requirements. Hazardous waste permits at the other destruction facilities would also have to be modified to receive munitions from other sites.
"We recognize that there is a huge political challenge associated with that," said Kevin Flamm, program manager for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the agency responsible for the destruction of the depots' chemical weapons stockpile.
According to the report, the Department of Defense doesn't have much confidence in meeting the 2017 deadline under this option because of the changes required.
Preliminary findings show that destruction of the chemical weapons at the Colorado and Kentucky facilities by 2017 would not be possible under the other two options, the report states.
There is currently no preferred option of the three available, Flamm said.
Last year, Congress mandated a goal of 2017 for total destruction of the stockpile when it approved an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill written by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"Now, it's vitally important that we keep the pressure on the Department to ensure that it complies with the law and that all the weapons at the facility are disposed of as quickly and safely as possible," McConnell said.
But delays caused by technology development, environmental permitting , regulatory and other issues may lengthen the time it takes to destroy the weapons at Blue Grass and Pueblo, Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib said.
The annual budget for the demilitarization program is approximately $1.6 billion, and $1.2 billion is for operations and maintenance funds used for operating, maintaining, and closing existing destruction facilities, Isleib said.
"We spend about $1.277 billion per year to destroy these weapons," he said. "To do so safely is a slow and complex process."
Williams said he's tired of "the Pentagon creating delays by cutting the funding for the project or changing their mind on acceleration initiatives and then repeatedly telling the people of Kentucky that deadlines can't be met."
"It's well past the time for excuses — we're dealing with weapons of mass destruction here — not some military pet project," he said. "The risk of continuing to store these weapons demands a 'can do' approach to their disposal by both the government and the contractors."
Flamm said the study was done responsibly and under the guidelines of what Congress requested.
"The intent was for us to be responsive to the intent that Congress asked us to fill," he said.
Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said the idea of transporting the weapons is "unworkable," and bringing it up merely delays destruction.
"It is annoying that the Army continues to suggest over and over again that transporting weapons from Blue Grass Army Depot is an acceptable option for disposal," Chandler said. "Transporting these chemical agents is extremely dangerous and, for this reason, has been illegal for over a decade."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., also had concerns about moving the chemical weapons.
"While chemical demilitarization in Anniston, Ala., has been extremely successful, I believe the transportation risks of moving these weapons across state lines outweigh the benefits," Shelby said. "We cannot sacrifice safety and security for expediency."
The Blue Grass Army Depot stores the nerve agents VX and GB, mustard agent and a much larger supply of conventional munitions.