Pentagon will miss chemical weapons deadline by 9 years

McClatchy NewspapersMay 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon plans on ramping up by more than three years the destruction of chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot, a move that includes an additional $1.2 billion in construction at two new disposal plants in Kentucky and Colorado, according to the Department of Defense.

Though the new Pentagon proposal includes a spending increase through 2015 to build the plants at the Blue Grass Army Depot and a similar facility in Colorado, the Pentagon doesn't anticipate disposing of all of its chemical weapons until 2021 -- nearly a decade beyond the 2012 deadline set by the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Kentucky lawmakers hailed the Pentagon's proposal as a step in the right direction.

"I am pleased that DOD has agreed with me about the importance of increasing funding for chemical weapons demilitarization," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The additional funding will help hasten the safe disposal of weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot, and once the acceleration options are implemented, I expect even more time can be cut from the schedule to bring it into compliance with the 2017 congressional deadline."

The disposal of Cold War-era weapons stockpiled at the Blue Grass facility is an ongoing saga, one that has included battles over federal funding, a 2007 leak of sarin -- a toxic, odorless and tasteless liquid nerve agent with a consistency similar to water -- and continued grassroots efforts to better regulate and remove the waste.

"It got so bad in 2005 that the Kentucky and Colorado projects were put on 'caretaker status,' meaning no funds were available to move forward towards disposal," said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, an organization that has pushed for improved disposal.

In 2007, Congress approved a McConnell-backed measure that set a 2017 deadline on disposing of all chemical weapons stockpiles across the country.

The Pentagon's plans for the Kentucky and Colorado sites were always far behind that timetable.

Most projections for those facilities didn't suggest starting disposal operations until 2017.

In November, officials announced that the destruction of 157 gallons of nerve agent stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot would finally begin after more than a year of preparation and delays. However, just a few weeks after that announcement an Army official overseeing the disposal of chemical weapons at Blue Grass said efforts were years off schedule, because of building redesign issues, and might not even start until 2021.

"This new funding announcement illustrates that the safety and well-being of the people of central Kentucky is a priority in the Obama administration," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles. "Let's also hope that with this funding we can move up the timeline, bringing about a faster resolution to the destruction of this chemical weapons stockpile. This is a win for both Craig Williams and Sen. Mitch McConnell and a big win for the people of Madison County and the surrounding communities."

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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