Inside a secure facility at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, a rigorous operation unfolded to dismantle the remaining stockpile of dangerous chemical weapons.
Guarded by armed personnel and multiple layers of barbed wire, a team of robotic arms diligently carried out the task. The process involved handling artillery shells filled with deadly mustard agent that had been stored for over 70 years.
The bright yellow robots carefully pierced, drained, and washed each shell before subjecting them to intense heat at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The result: harmless scrap metal, which promptly cascaded into an ordinary brown dumpster with a resounding clank, signifying a significant step towards the safe disposal of these hazardous materials.
Kingston Reif, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for threat reduction and arms control, expressed satisfaction as he witnessed the disposal process.
“That’s the sound of a chemical weapon dying,” he remarked with a smile, reflecting his years of advocating for disarmament efforts beyond the government’s realm.
Another shell’s clank into the dumpster marked another successful step towards eliminating these dangerous weapons.
The arduous process of eliminating the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, spanning several decades, is finally nearing completion, according to the Army. The Pueblo depot in Colorado completed the destruction of its last weapon in June, while the remaining few at a Kentucky depot are scheduled for destruction within days. Once these are gone, all publicly declared chemical weapons worldwide will have been eradicated.
The sheer magnitude of the U.S. stockpile was staggering, comprising cluster bombs, land mines, artillery shells filled with nerve agents, and tanks loaded with poisonous substances.
These weapons, considered inhumane after World War I, continued to be developed and amassed despite their condemnation. The arsenal included deadlier versions of chlorine and mustard agents, as well as nerve agents like VX and Sarin, known for their lethal potency.
While the U.S. armed forces have not deployed lethal chemical weapons in battle since 1918, the use of herbicides such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War had harmful effects on humans.
Furthermore, the United States had once maintained an extensive germ warfare and biological weapons program, which was dismantled in the 1970s.
An agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1989 set the stage for the destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles.
The U.S. Senate’s ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 further solidified the commitment to eliminating these weapons entirely.
However, the task of destruction proved challenging due to the weapons’ design, which prioritized firing rather than disassembly. Their combination of explosives and poison made them exceptionally hazardous to handle.
Originally estimated to take a few years and cost around $1.4 billion, the project has faced significant delays, with a final cost reaching close to $42 billion—nearly 2,900% over budget.
But it’s done
“It’s been an ordeal, that’s for sure — I wondered if I would ever see the day,” said Craig Williams, who started pushing for the safe destruction of the stockpile in 1984 when he learned that the Army was storing tons of chemical weapons five miles from his house, at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Kentucky.
“We had to fight, and it took a long time, but I think we should be very proud,” he said. “This is the first time, globally, that an entire class of weapons of mass destruction will be destroyed.”
Several nations, including Britain (2007), India (2009), and Russia (2017), have successfully destroyed their declared chemical weapons stockpiles.
However, the Pentagon warns that the eradication of chemical weapons is not yet complete. Some countries never signed the treaty, while others, notably Russia, are suspected of retaining undeclared stocks.
The Chemical Weapons Convention also failed to put an end to the use of such weapons by rogue states and terrorist groups. The forces loyal to President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons multiple times between 2013 and 2019.
Additionally, according to the IHS Conflict Monitor, fighters from the Islamic State group deployed chemical weapons over 52 times in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2016.
The massive U.S. stockpile and the lengthy disposal process serve as reminders of both human folly and potential, according to those involved.
Ensuring the safety of surrounding communities significantly contributed to the time-consuming nature of the project, as citizens and lawmakers demanded meticulous and safe execution.
In late June, at the Blue Grass depot, workers meticulously removed Sarin-filled rockets from underground storage bunkers and processed them in specialized buildings.
Following careful inspections and X-rays, robots took over the task, marking the final human handling of these weapons.
Chemical munitions all share a similar design, consisting of a thin-walled warhead filled with liquid agent and a small explosive charge.
For decades, the U.S. military maintained a stance of employing chemical weapons solely in response to enemy chemical attacks, amassing a significant stockpile to deter potential adversaries.
By the 1960s, the United States had established a secretive network of manufacturing plants and storage facilities worldwide.
Public awareness of the extensive and lethal stockpile grew after 5,600 sheep mysteriously died near an Army test site in Utah in 1968.
In response to public pressure, the military acknowledged the storage and testing of chemical weapons at multiple locations, leading to the beginning of a long journey towards their destruction.
Initially, the Army considered openly disposing of the outdated chemical munitions by sinking them at sea, mirroring their previous secret practices.
However, public outrage ensued, prompting the exploration of alternative methods. Burning the stockpiles in large-scale incinerators emerged as Plan B, but it, too, faced significant opposition.
In 1984, nerve agent incineration was announced at the Blue Grass depot, prompting reactions from individuals like Williams, a Vietnam War veteran and cabinetmaker at the time.
“There were a lot of people asking questions about what would come out of the stack, and we weren’t getting any answers,” he said.
In response to their concerns, Williams and fellow activists took action, rallying against the incinerators, advocating for their cause to lawmakers, and enlisting experts who highlighted the potential toxin emissions associated with the proposed method.
While incinerators in several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon, Utah, and Johnston Atoll, were utilized to destroy a significant portion of the stockpile, activists successfully impeded their operation in four other states.
Following congressional directives to find alternative approaches, the Department of Defense innovated new techniques to eliminate chemical weapons without resorting to incineration.
Walton Levi, a chemical engineer at the Pueblo depot who has been involved in the field since 1987, shared that they had to learn and adapt throughout the process, eventually finding effective solutions.
At the Pueblo depot, robot arms pierce each shell, extracting the mustard agent contained within. The shells undergo a thorough washing and baking process to eradicate any remaining traces.
The mustard agent is diluted in hot water and then broken down by bacteria, a method akin to sewage treatment plants.
The resulting residue mainly consists of ordinary table salt but contains heavy metals that necessitate proper handling as hazardous waste.
Observing the destruction of shells during the final day of operations at Pueblo, Levi expressed awe at the capabilities of bacteria, emphasizing their ability to consume various substances.
A similar process takes place at the Blue Grass depot, where liquid nerve agents extracted from warheads are mixed with water and caustic soda, heated, and stirred.
The resulting liquid, referred to as hydrolysate, is transported to a facility outside Port Arthur, Texas, where it undergoes incineration.
“It’s a good piece of history to have behind us,” said Candace M. Coyle, the Army’s project manager for the Blue Grass depot. “That’s the best part about it, is that it’s not going to harm anyone.”
Irene Kornelly, the chair of the citizens’ advisory commission that has overseen the process at Pueblo for 30 years, has kept track as nearly 1 million mustard shells were destroyed. Now 77, she stood leaning on a cane and craned her neck to see the last one be scrapped.
“Honestly, I never thought this day would come,” she said. “The military didn’t know if they could trust the people, and the people didn’t know if they could trust the military.”
She looked around at the plant’s beige buildings and the empty concrete storage bunkers on the Colorado prairie beyond. Nearby, a crowd of workers in coveralls with emergency gas masks slung on their hips gathered to celebrate. The plant manager blasted “The Final Countdown” on the PA and handed out red, white and blue Bomb Pops.
Kornelly smiled as she took it all in. The process had been smooth, safe, and so plodding, she said, that many residents of the region had forgotten it was going on.
“Most people today don’t have a clue that this all happened — they never had to worry about it,” she said. She paused, then added, “And I think that’s just as well.”