By Ben Kleppinger
For the first time in the history of the Blue Grass Army Depot, part of the chemical weapons stockpile housed at the depot is being destroyed.Toxic chemical workers began neutralizing a nerve agent known as sarin on Wednesday. The agent was removed from some rockets several decades ago, said Dick Sloan, a public affairs officer for the depot.
The U.S. Army wanted to test a separate functional part of the rockets, so the nerve agent was drained into three steel containers which have been stored at the depot since, Sloan said.
“This is the legacy of those earlier tests,” he said.
In August 2007 one of the containers leaked about a gallon of the toxic liquid, causing concern in the communities surrounding the depot.
The containers are housed in a storage igloo that completely contained the leak, according the Army. But according to the Herald-Leader, the leak still encouraged officials to speed up the destruction process.
On Oct. 17, the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board (CDCAB), a citizen group that voices local concerns to the government, recommended destroying the sarin gas as quickly as possible, because the possibility of leaks from the containers posed too much of a risk.
The CDCAB opposes destruction of chemical weapons that would require transporting leftover waste over state borders. But in this specific case, the CDCAB said it would support transport of the hazardous waste left over after neutralization.
Sloan said the agent is being neutralized in an under-pressurized chamber inside an under-pressurized building. Under-pressurized means the air pressure inside the building and chamber is lower than the air pressure outside.
If any leaks in the building or chamber occur, the lower pressure inside means air will leak in, not out, Sloan said.
“All of this is designed for safety,” he said. “Nothing’s gettin’ out of there.”
In order to get the sarin from its igloo housing into the building where it will be neutralized there are many steps, all designed around achieving as much safety as possible, Sloan said.
The Igloo is tested for toxic vapors, down to parts-per-billion, before anyone enters it. Sloan said the igloo is already tested on a regular basis, and he doesn’t expect any problems to arise there.
Next, chemical workers test the air inside a plastic covering around the container for toxic vapors. Once workers are sure there are no vapors there either, the plastic covering is removed.
The container is then placed inside a rocket transport container, and taken out of the igloo by a forklift.
Because of an eight-inch drop along the path the forklift takes, the rocket transport container is actually passed off to a second forklift, because the drop is too much for either forklift to navigate.
Finally, the second forklift takes the rocket transport container inside the building where the sarin will be neutralized.
“We recognize that we’re dealing with some of the most deadly chemicals ever developed by man,” Sloan said. “We take our responsibility of protecting the community and, of course, ourselves, very very seriously.”
The neutralized product is going to be transported to Texas for final destruction, Sloan said.
“[At that point], we don’t have agent anymore, we have a caustic hazardous waste,” he said.
Sloan said the destruction of the three containers of sarin is an isolated event and does not signify the beginning of destruction of the much larger nerve agent weapons cache housed at the depot.
The depot houses more than 100,000 rockets, rocket warheads and projectiles containing more than 1 million pounds of chemical weapons agents, according to globalsecurity.org.
Construction of facilities for the destruction of those weapons is under way, Sloan said. Destruction of the weapons has been under discussion for decades, and deadlines for destruction have been pushed back several times. Currently the weapons are expected to be destroyed no sooner than 2017.
The demolition of the three containers of sarin is expected to be complete by December or January, Sloan said.
“Then we’ll just have this nice clean empty igloo and this…risk to the community will be gone forever,” he said.