By Casey Tolliver
The Blue Grass Army depot has housed mustard agent since the ’40’s, and nerve agents GB and VX since the ’60’s. More recently, the push has been made by many, including Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, to destroy the chemicals. But destroying the chemicals has not been a simple task.
The depot has housed nearly 2 percent of the nation’s chemical weapons since 1944, and houses two different types of weapons-artillery shells and rockets-filled with chemical weapons. The depot’s stockpile of nearly 523 tons of nerve agents are set to be dismantled beginning in 2017.
The government is constructing a plant specifically for the demolition of the weapons on-site at the depot.
The Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, which was originally expected to be built by 2010, is currently being built in the north-central area of the depot, and should be finished by 2014.
The destruction plant will house the facilities used to destroy the chemical weapons.
Worley Johnson, Chair of the Eastern’s environmental health sciences department, said the chemicals are more easily extracted from the shells than the rockets.
“The M-55 rockets weren’t supposed to be taken apart, they were supposed to be used,” Johnson said.
The demolition of the toxic agents will be a two part process, depot spokesman Dave Easter said.
Phase one of the destruction process will involve the disassembly of the rockets and artillery shells.
The chemical agents will then be separated from the explosives and mixed with other chemicals, mostly sodium hydroxide, which will neutralize and reduce the chemical agents from a toxic classification to a hazardous classification..
The second phase in the process involves a process called super critical water oxidation.
Easter said this second step uses water, pressure and temperature to cook the hazardous material in something like a big pressure cooker.
The first stage of the process is technically enough to make the toxic agents safe, because they are turned into a practically harmless waste product called “hydrolosate”, Johnson said.
However, due to a treaty with Russia, the U.S. is required to destroy the hydrolosate as well.
Funding issues could possibly threaten delays in the safe disposal of the chemical weapons, and have been the source of a constant fight over the past years, Johnson said.
Johnson said without the help of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the dismantling of the weapons would probably not be happening at all.
“Mitch McConnell has been the driving force in funding,” Johnson said. “I doubt we’d still be (actively disposing) without Mitch.”
So far, $2 billion has been shelled out for the construction and operation of the plant. The price is expected to rise even higher by the time construction is completed.
Funding for the destruction plant must be approved by Congress and occurs in two steps of legislation, Easter said.
The depot experienced two mustard agent leaks this summer.
The leaks did not present any danger to the environment or community, and Madison and all surrounding counties were notified, as well as Kentucky Emergency Management and environmental officials were notified immediately the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency said in a news release.
The leaks were a result of the summer heat, Johnson said.
“It’s the heat,” Johnson said. “You always have the leaks in the summer.”
Bechtel National, Inc., and Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group, Inc., were awarded the contract to develop the design plan for the construction, operation and closure of the disposal plant.