America’s Arsenal of Chemical WMDs

August 28th, 2003 - by admin

by Army’s WMD Destruction Program: Behind Schedule and Overbudget – Lois R. Ember / Chemical & Engineering News

WASHINGTON (August 26, 2003) — The Army’s program to destroy the nation’s arsenal of chemical weapons as mandated by the Chemical Weapons Convention is way over budget and far behind schedule. Persistent, pesky problems at operating disposal sites offer little to encourage hope for better performance.

Originally, the Army’s price tag for the destruction program was pegged at $1.8 billion. That was in 1985. In 2001, the Pentagon’s estimate had spiraled to $24 billion.

In the 1980s, the Army confidently envisioned eliminating the weapons by 1994. Today, it’s likely the US will have to ask the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the treaty’s oversight agency — for a five-year extension of the 2007 disposal deadline.

Greg Mahall, spokesman for the Army’s Chemical Materials Agency, admits that “earlier projections were overly optimistic and maybe not based in reality.” But, he adds, “it’s a complex and challenging program.”

Incinerating the Pentagon’s VX and Sarin Nerve Gas
In 1982, the Army selected incineration as its destruction technology, which to date has destroyed 26% of the 31,500 tons of chemical agents in the US stockpile. Craig Williams, who directs the Chemical Weapons Working Group, which opposes incineration, says, “There’s no question that the technology selected has, in significant part, been responsible for the cost overruns and the time slippage.” He also believes that it will be a “challenge” for the US to meet even the 2012 deadline.

He may have a point if the experience at the Tooele, Utah, incineration facility is any guide. Tooele — which originally stored 43% of the nation’s chemical weapons — has destroyed 44% of its holdings over the past seven years. But not without glitches and delays. Though original projections set 2004 as the date for complete elimination of its weapons, Tooele will probably not meet that goal until the end of 2007, fully 11 years after operations began.

Tooele has eliminated all its sarin nerve gas and “has started processing its VX nerve gas but not its mustard gas,” Tooele spokeswoman Alaine Southworth says. Disposal of sarin ran into many problems, including the unintended release of very small amounts of the nerve agent in May 2000, which shut the facility down for five months.

Destruction of VX Proves Vexing
Although no VX nerve agent has been released to the atmosphere, VX disposal is now experiencing problems. In recent trial burns to destroy VX-filled rockets, the incineration process has not been able to meet the federal standard for release of polychlorinated biphenyls. “PCB emissions were too high, so we stopped processing the VX rockets until we can resolve the problem,” Southworth explains.

VX rockets are encased in fiberglass firing tubes, which are the only parts of the weapon known to contain PCBs, Mahall explains. According to air samples taken during incineration, PCBs were not destroyed to the 99.9999% level required by the facility’s permit. However, Mahall points out that when “natural gas — not VX — was incinerated, we still got readings for PCBs above allowable permit levels.”

Additional air samples have been sent to the original testing lab and to another lab to determine whether the readings were the result of incomplete burning or a lab error. Until the analyses come back, Tooele has ceased destroying the rockets. VX-filled warheads, which are not encased in firing tubes and pose no PCB problem, are still being destroyed.

Disposal Problems from Utah to Indiana
The Army’s Newport, Indiana, site also contains VX, but in ton containers not weapons. It, too, is running into problems, though they differ from those at Tooele. Because of political pressure there and at the Army’s sites in Aberdeen, Md., Pueblo, Colo., and Bluegrass, Ky., these chemical arsenals will be chemically neutralized, not incinerated.

Originally, Newport’s more than 1,200 tons of VX were to be neutralized on-site with sodium hydroxide, followed by supercritical water oxidation of the hydrolysate. To build such a facility would take some time, and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Army decided that it would be safer for the public to quickly neutralize the VX and send the much less toxic hydrolysate off-site for further treatment.

VX neutralization was to begin this October, and the hydrolysate sent to a Perma-Fix facility in Dayton, Ohio, for biodegradation. This plan has run into fierce opposition. “It doesn’t appear as if the counties around Dayton will accept the hydrolysate,” Mahall says.

In the meantime, Parsons, the engineering firm contracted to build the neutralization facility at Newport, has been instructed to build a wet sprinkler system as a backup to the already-planned dry-chemical fire suppression system. Design, installation, and testing of the sprinkler system will take four to six months, which means that neutralization will not begin until next January at the earliest, Newport spokeswoman Terry Arthur says.

Arthur points out yet another problem — the analytical method used to measure the level of VX in the hydrolysate. By law, under the existing permit, the Army is allowed 230 ppb of VX in the hydrolysate. However, Arthur says, “The Army has committed to the community not to ship hydrolysate off-site unless the VX levels are 20 ppb or lower, and we can’t do that now.” As measured, caustic neutralization produces a hydrolysate containing 40 to 80 ppb of VX.

It’s unclear whether the problem lies in the neutralization process or with the analytical method used to detect VX. Glen Shonkwiler, the lead environmental engineer at Newport, says the GC-ion trap mass spectrometry system used to measure VX requires a hexane acid extraction of the hydrolysate. He speculates that “the extraction process may be creating VX or an interferent.”

The on-site neutralization plant has been built, and the decision about what to do with the hydrolysate is likely to be made by the Army within the next few weeks. Options are to “tank farm” it on-site until a supercritical water oxidation facility can be built, send it to another Perma-Fix facility for biodegradation, or send it to DuPont’s Environmental Solutions Chamber Works facility in Deepwater, N.J., for biodegradation.

Chamber Works is already receiving hydrolysate from the Army’s Aberdeen site. At Aberdeen, mustard gas in more than 1,800 ton-containers is being neutralized with warm water in a plant built and operated by Bechtel Aberdeen. There have been some start-up glitches, but the plant has processed 52 containers with no chemical agent releases or worker exposures.

Alabama Nerve Gas Incinerator Fails in Tests
The Army’s Anniston, Alabama, site, built in a residential area, has also been destroying its stocks of chemical weapons — not with neutralization but incineration. The Army has argued that lessons learned from its experience in burning weapons at the now closed Johnston Atoll facility, in the Pacific Ocean, and at Tooele would eliminate start-up problems at other incinerator sites. That has not been the case at Anniston.

At press time, Anniston had destroyed 487 sarin-filled rockets out of a total of nearly 43,000. But, in its first two weeks of operation last month, the incinerator was shut down nearly 30% of the time, for safety reasons, spokesman Michael Abrams says.

Incinerators at Umatilla, Oregon, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and neutralization facilities at Pueblo and Bluegrass have not yet begun destroying their stockpiles.

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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