U.S. Will Miss Treaty Deadline to Destroy Chemical Weapons

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, July 10, 2006 (ENS) - The United States has requested a five year extension to the deadline for completing destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. But even if the extension is granted, the new deadline cannot be met, a U.S. ambassador says.

The United States possesses the second largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world - more than 27,700 metric tons of deadly VX, GB, HD, mustard, and sarin nerve agent and associated explosives. They must be destroyed under the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty signed by 178 countries.

Ambassador Eric Javits, head of the U.S. delegation to the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), submitted the extension request to the council during a session that ended Friday at The Hague, Netherlands.


Ambassador Eric Javits was sworn in on December 6, 2001 as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament. (Photo courtesy U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva)
The draft request would extend the deadline for the destruction of the entire U.S. chemical weapons stockpile five years from April 2007 to April 2012.

Javits told the council that the United States is asking for an extended deadline of April 29, 2012 because it is the latest date the treaty allows, but even if the extension is granted, the U.S. will not be able to destroy all its chemical weapons by then.

"Based on our current projections, we do not expect to be able to meet that deadline," the ambassador said first in April and reiterated at the council meeting.

"We are making every effort and continuing to seek opportunities to improve our [chemical weapons] destruction with a view to meeting the 2012 deadline or completing destruction as soon after that date as feasible," Javits said.

After OPCW states have a chance to consider the U.S. request, Javits said he hopes the council will endorse it at its next session in November.

"Let me emphatically reiterate that the United States is committed to the earliest possible completion of destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles," Javits said.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force April 29, 1997, bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons. It prohibits the use or preparation for use of chemical weapons. As of March 29, 2003, 176 countries have signed the treaty and 151 of them have ratified it.

The treaty requires that each Party government must destroy any chemical weapons production facilities it owns, or that are located in any place under its control.


U.S. chemical weapons awaiting destruction (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
Destruction of the U.S. stockpile is being conducted by the U.S. Army's Chemical Materials Agency based at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

As of March 31, 2006 the U.S. had destroyed 10,103 metric tons of chemical agent, or 36.4 percent of its declared inventory of 27,768 metric tons.

The U.S. has concentrated on destroying its most lethal weapons first, VX and sarin nerve agent. Javits says over 86 percent of the sarin is already destroyed.

The U.S. has completed operations at two chemical weapons destruction facilities - at Johnston Island, 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, and at Aberdeen, Maryland. Six other facilities are currently operating at a cost of a billion and a half dollars a year, and site preparations are underway for construction of the final two destruction facilities.

In April, Javits told the Executive Council that it took the United States "longer than anticipated to build facilities and to obtain the necessary permits and consent to begin destruction of chemical weapons, and we have found that, once operating, our facilities have not destroyed weapons as rapidly as we initially projected."

Current projections indicate that four facilities will be operating past 2012 - Umatilla, Oregon; Tooele, Utah; Anniston, Alabama; and Pine Bluff Arkansas.

The Umatilla facility began operations in September 2004, but is encountering delays as a result of repeated fires in the explosive containment rooms during the rocket shearing process. This facility has destroyed 478 metric tons of GB stocks using incineration, with 2,896 metric tons remaining.

At the Tooele facility 6,489 metric tons of chemical weapons have been incinerated, with 5,632 metric tons remaining. The facility was shut down for eight months to implement a new safety plan following an incident of worker exposure to a small amount of nerve agent. This facility is currently inactive preparing for destruction of mustard agent, but contamination of some mustard stocks with mercury has complicated the process, officials say.


Chemical weapons are unloaded from on-site containers in the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility's unpack area. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
At the Anniston facility, operations began in August 2003, and the facility has destroyed by incineration all 397 metric tons of GB, with 1,648 metric tons of other agents remaining. Startup was delayed seven months to implement additional community emergency preparedness. This facility is currently inactive while preparing for destruction of VX agent.

The Pine Bluff facility began operations in March 2005, and has destroyed 166 metric tons of GB using incineration, with 3,327 metric tons remaining.

Two facilities that have not yet been constructed are expected to begin operations no earlier than 2011.

One of the two, the Blue Grass, Kentucky Chemical Agent Disposal Pilot Plant is currently in the design phase, with 475 metric tons to be destroyed. Most facilties have incinerated the chemical weapons, but Blue Grass will use alternative techniques - neutralization, followed by supercritical water oxidation - to destroy GB, VX, and HD. It is projected to start in 2011.

The other facility that has yet to be built is in Pueblo, Colorado. Currently in the design phase, it has 2,371 metric tons to be destroyed. This facility will use the alternative techniques of neutralization followed by biotreatment to destroy mustard agent. It is also projected to start operations in 2011.

While, the United States announced the decision to request an extension in April, it delayed submitting a draft request to provide information about the move and to listen to the comments, suggestions and concerns of others.

"We have appreciated your thoughtful and constructive comments, and recognize the concerns that have been raised," Javits said.

The threat of chemical weapons use no longer is confined to combat, he said. "The threat now also comes from terrorists and non-state actors," as they may threaten "us in our homes and cities."