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Kentucky Chemical Weapons Leak Detectors Dysfunctional for Years
WASHINGTON, DC, July 20, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. Army has acknowleged that the nerve gas leak monitors at a Kentucky chemical weapons storage depot were not working for nearly two years, 2003-2005. The admission is contained in a U.S. Army Inspector General report dated February 2006 but released today.

Managers of chemical weapons storage at the Blue Grass Army Depot, located outside of Richmond, 30 miles south of Lexington, had rendered the detectors inoperative and the problem was remedied only after a whistleblower was forced to file a complaint, according to the Inspector General investigation posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

The Army Inspector General report, dated February 10, 2006, finds that "Minicams sampling configuration change and poor air monitoring equipment maintenance caused incorrect air monitoring data results for agent VX."

Blue Grass Army Depot hosts a tenant organization, Blue Grass Chemical Activity, which is responsible for the chemical weapons stored at the depot.

The Blue Grass Army Depot stores 523 tons of chemical weapons in igloos like this one. (Photo courtesy Kentucky Environmental Foundation)

Blue Grass Chemical Activity is one of six active U.S. Army chemical weapons storage facilities across the country. Three others have completed their storage and destruction tasks and have been closed. Blue Grass Chemical Activity maintains 49 earth-covered bunkers called igloos, 45 of which are used for its chemical weapons storage mission.

These igloos contain 523 tons of nerve agents GB (sarin) and VX, and mustard gas in projectiles, warheads and rockets, or about two percent of the United States chemical weapons stockpile.

In accordance with the Chemical Weapons Treaty, the chemical weapons stored there are to be destroyed in the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, the last of eight to be built across the United States.

Beginning in June 2003, destruction of the Blue Grass chemical weapons stockpile was contracted out to a joint venture team composed of the California companies Bechtel National, Inc., and Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group, Inc.

The Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass team is contracted to develop a design-build plan with task orders to be awarded in the future for the design, construction, systemization, pilot testing, operation and closure of the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant.

Groundbreaking for the chemical destruction facility took place on October 28, 2006. Final design of the facilities is expected to be complete in 2010 and actual construction in 2018, after which destruction of the chemical weapons is scheduled to begin.

Destruction of the chemical weapons at Blue Grass will be accomplished using a technology known as neutralization followed by supercritical water oxidation. This is a different method than the incineration used at the larger stockpiles.

Meanwhile, the 523 tons of chemical weapons at Blue Grass must be safely stored.

PEER points out that the Army Inspector General's report confirms the chief concerns raised by whistleblower Donald Van Winkle, a chemical weapons monitoring operator at Blue Grass.

Van Winkle expressed his concern that leak detectors were improperly removed from inside the igloos holding highly lethal VX nerve gas.

As a result, from September 2003 to August 2005, after Van Winkle came forward, Blue Grass had no means, other than visual observation, to determine whether the odorless, colorless nerve gas was seeping from the rockets in which the agent is stored.

These changes were contrary to Army protocols and safety standards but only minor disciplinary action was taken against the responsible managers, Van Winkle said.

The Army Inspector General concluded that despite the lack of working leak detectors there was no evidence of worker or public exposure to escaped chemicals, citing the "historically low rate of leakers" in VX nerve gas rockets and warheads.

The Inspector General withheld the report from PEER Freedom of Information Act requests for more than three years due to "an ongoing U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command investigation." PEER has requested information on the status of that criminal investigation.

"At Blue Grass, the Army was flying blind in protecting its chemical weapons stockpile," said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein. "Incredibly, the Army's attitude appears to be that since no workers or civilians were killed then no harm, no foul."

At the time this report was being finalized, whistleblower Van Winkle was removed from Blue Grass after being stripped of his certification to work with chemical weapons because, according to the base command, he showed "signs of behavior of a disgruntled employee and lack of a positive attitude."

"In the Army, senior officials who screw up get slapped on the wrist but whistleblowers get banished," said Dinerstein, who is leading Van Winkle's legal effort to restore his chemical weapons program certification.

She notes that the Inspector General's report contains information at variance with sworn testimony from Blue Grass officials in the Van Winkle legal action. "Given how this case was handled, no wonder major problems go unreported," she said.

While the Army Inspector General did not substantiate related operational troubles at Blue Grass, in late 2007, the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection confirmed some of Van Winkle's other disclosures.

The state agency acknowledged that there is no way of knowing whether there were leaks during the period that the monitors were inoperative. The Kentucky agency also took what PEER calls "the unusual step" of issuing notices of violation to the Blue Grass Depot.

Violations verified by Kentucky DEP in 2007 include failure to test spills from rockets containing agent that are stored inside the igloos; improper storage practices which crush the shells of rockets and cause leaks; and failure to ensure employees are properly trained to prevent release of chemical warfare agents.

The state agency also warned that Blue Grass staff may have been exposed to nerve agent but never notified or monitored; managers "scrub" or falsify monitoring reports, and in some instances turn off monitoring equipment to mask problems; and the base routinely transfers or blackballs whistleblowers.

According to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency as of July 2009, the United States has destroyed 63 percent of the original stockpile of nearly 31,100 metric tons of nerve and mustard agents declared in 1997.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.

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