The official press release last week announcing that destruction had begun on the last 2,611 tons of World War II-era mustard gas weapons stored at the Pueblo Chemical Deport made it sound as if all is on schedule.
“After months of preparation, testing and scrutiny by oversight and regulatory agencies, the Pueblo team is ready to play its part in meeting our nation’s commitment to the 100 percent destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile,” the release quoted Conrad F. Whyne as saying. Whyne is the program executive officer for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the responsible government agency.
Seasoned observers of the Pueblo depot and its stocks of old and leaky chemical weapons, however, may want to take more of a wait-and-see approach to the new pronouncement.
As Rocky Mountain PBS I-News reported in 2013, the Pueblo stores have been slated for destruction since at least 1985. The process of dismantling the weapons, as of that report, was 29 years behind schedule and $33.8 billion over budget, according to Defense Department documents and historians.
One problem leading to delays has been the deterioration of some of the munitions. They are not stable enough to be run through what is called the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, a sprawling automated facility located on the depot. Expanding environmental regulations and public concerns have also figured into the absence of action.
The problematic leaky weapons are now being disposed of by the Explosive Destruction System, which in the video, looks something like an industrial washing machine, with two people in hazmat suits loading individual canisters by hand. Both the chemical and explosive agents of the weapon are neutralized in the EDS process, according to the release.
The Destruction Pilot plant, meanwhile, is currently undergoing testing and personnel training – systemization, the government calls it – and is expected to destroy the majority of the stockpile beginning in the late 2015/early 2016 time-frame, the release said.
The Pueblo munitions are expected to be eliminated by 2019, under the current scenario. 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.