Ronald Reagan was president when Congress first directed the United States Army to eliminate its chemical weapons – a stockpile of 31,500 tons of mustard agent, sarin and VX developed by the military for use in war. At that time, the Army thought the job would be done by 1994 and cost $1.7 billion, according to the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute.
By the time of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention – an international treaty under which the U.S. and other nations agreed to destroy their stockpiles – estimates had shifted. But the U.S. still expected to destroy its arsenal by a 2007 deadline. The convention held out the possibility of a five-year extension. That deadline slipped by last year.
Half a world away, in the context of a brutal civil war in Syria, a sarin attack killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 and brought a fresh reminder of the horrors these weapons can bring. The U.S. blamed the attack on the regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad, and a military reprisal appeared imminent. Since then, much has happened, including a hastily-brokered agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons by the middle of next year. Also,the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has taken a leading role in dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons inventory, was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work.
But as the American experience has shown, getting rid of tons of deadly chemical is easier said than done. An I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS analysis of Defense Department and historical records shows the U.S. effort 29 years behind schedule and $33.8 billion over budget.
Officials warn, however, that the two situations are not easily comparable. What remains of the U.S. stash has long been weaponized, that is, the chemical agent resides in artillery and mortal shells that are maintained and tightly-secured as the processes for destroying them are being constructed. This includes 2,611 tons of weaponized mustard agent stored at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot.
The Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced recently that Syria’s capacity for weaponizing chemical agent had been destroyed, and, as for the deadly chemicals, they would be transported out of Syria for destruction elsewhere in order to meet the deadline.
The U.S. Army now hopes to eliminate its remaining stockpile in Pueblo by 2019. A similar plan is in place for the 523 tons of chemical material, including weaponized sarin, held at Kentucky’s Blue Grass Army Depot, by 2023.