Kentucky Ready To Fight To Get Weapons Out

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Chicago Tribune
January 5, 2007
But Pentagon says it doesn't have the cash to destroy unused perils from past
By E.A. Torriero, Tribune staff reporter
NEWPORT, Ky. -- For more than 60 years, some of the world's most dangerous weapons have been stored in earth-covered igloos, just a gust of wind away from putting thousands of students at Eastern Kentucky University at risk.
After a quarter-century of protest and debate, the community was eagerly awaiting federal government action to destroy these instruments of mass destruction, with a $2 billion plant under construction to do the work safely.
But late last year the Pentagon announced it did not have the money to finish the project in time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing so much that the government can't fully fund the destruction of unused weapons from past wars, officials said.
It won't be until at least 2023--and probably later--that weapons here at the Blue Grass Army Depot and at a storage facility in Colorado will be purged of the hundreds of aging tons of nerve agents and mustard gas, some of it stored since World War II. The delay increases the risk of a leak, federal officials concede, and puts a Kentucky county of 80,000 residents in peril for at least a decade longer than anticipated.
"We've been had," said Madison County Judge Executive Kent Clark. "We've been good neighbors with the federal government. We haven't raised hell to embarrass them. And now they turn around and stiff us. People here are mighty upset."
The Kentucky congressional delegation and a consortium of local leaders plan a vigorous fight this month when Congress considers funding proposals and the Pentagon fine-tunes its proposed budget.
"I'm disappointed to see that the Department of Defense is again backsliding on its commitment," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent statement. "I am going to continue to lead the fight to ensure that these heinous weapons are disposed of in a safe and timely manner."
The delays illustrate the government's struggle over ridding the nation of weapons that have become a possible threat to Americans.
So far, 41 percent of the nation's 31,500-ton arsenal of leftover weapons has been destroyed at four other sites--in Oregon, Alabama, Utah and Arkansas. In addition to rockets and other armaments, vats of aging mustard gas have been destroyed in Maryland and nerve agent is being broken down in Indiana.
$29 billion cost increase
The cost of doing away with the weapons has skyrocketed to at least $31 billion from $2 billion projected in 1986. At the current rate, project costs in Kentucky will soar to $3.9 billion in the next decade, about $1.4 billion more than if the Pentagon followed its original budgeting timetable.
And watchdog groups say that billions more are likely to be spent because of further delays and problems.
New Jersey lawmakers and activists are protesting a federal plan to ship weapon waste there for disposal after the chemicals are neutralized in Indiana and elsewhere. A coalition of environmentalists filed suit in late December seeking to stop the shipping of the waste to New Jersey.
Already, cost problems in Kentucky and Colorado mean that the sites will not likely operate at full capacity, stretching the projects' timetables to long after the U.S. was supposed to comply with international treaties. The U.S. has been under pressure to comply with treaties signed in 1997 to neutralize its stockpile by 2012, although it is likely to receive an extension while showing good faith in continuing the weapons destruction.
"We spent so much time in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that never existed only to give short shrift to the ones in our own country," said Craig Williams, who runs a citizens group that has been battling the government over what to do at disposal sites.
The Kentucky depot houses a pittance of the leftover war weapons--just 1.6 percent of the nation's original arsenal. But it has one of the most powerful combinations of agents remaining in storage.
They include about 30,000 World War II-era projectiles filled with mustard gas. The site also has about 70,000 rockets from the 1960s equipped with warheads of GB and VX nerve agents.
45 steel-enforced igloos
The weapons stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot are in a labyrinth of 45 steel-enforced igloos that are the size of tractor-trailers and packed in mounds of earth. There is also an elaborate security system of alarms, fences, guards and detection monitors.
The biggest risk, though, is leakage. The government reports nearly a dozen leaks in recent years detected by monitors.
The leaks usually involve tiny vapors or minute drips and are quickly repaired, the government says, with none of the gases released into the atmosphere.
Federal monitors concede they do not know how much worse the problems will get if the weapons remain stored for two more decades. More than 200 waterlogged and weathered pallets where the weapons sit were replaced recently because of dangers that the weapons might fall over.
"The greatest risk is in the storage phase, not in the destruction," said Richard Sloan, spokesman for Blue Grass Chemical Activity, the agency responsible for storing the weapons at the depot, which is surrounded by nearby houses, businesses and a university.
"As time goes, the risks continue and no one knows how great they could be," he said.
After a grass-roots effort and one of the longest running battles over weapons disposal in the nation, people are exasperated at the latest twist in a quarter-century saga.
There were fierce debates years ago to get government approval to destroy the weapons. Then came a protracted fight over to how to destroy them.
At other sites, the weapons are incinerated.
But Kentucky residents, fearing the release of hazardous residue into the air, mounted a fight that includes "incineration protest songs."
In 2002, the Pentagon approved a process for Kentucky and Colorado that neutralizes the weapons in a complex chemical plant the size of 10 Wal-Marts. It involves using water and compounds to break down the deadly agent, leaving a non-lethal residue called hydrolysates.
Building on hold
Contractors began laying roads in recent months and laid the groundwork for construction of buildings. But as the government puts the brakes on funding, the building will lag. Plans to hire some 600 workers to run the plant, which at this point would not open until 2014, are in limbo.
"And who knows what other delays we could face due to funding?" said Jim Fritsche, the site project manager. "It's hard to plan with all these unknowns."
Now, after years of infighting, an alliance has formed among grass-roots organizers, elected officials, government agencies and contractors who all want to push the project forward. Congress will consider the Pentagon's curtailed funding proposals in this session.
But given America's other fiscal priorities, people here don't expect much.
"It could get worse," said county executive Clark. "If we go to war with Iran and Korea, we'll never have the money to get these weapons out of here. Our grandchildren will be stuck with this risk."