RICHMOND, Kentucky — Kentucky is home to a stockpile of deadly chemical weapons, some dating back to the end of World War II. The government has finished construction on a massive complex that will dismantle and destroy the weapons, beginning in 2020. The project, which broke ground at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond in 2003, is estimated to cost more than $5 billion.
There are 523 tons of chemical weapons at the depot, including rockets and projectiles filled with mustard, sarin or VX agent. The Kentucky stockpile is the last in the nation that is still sitting in storage. The mustard weapons have been stored at the site since 1944, while much deadlier sarin and VX agents began arriving in the 1960s. When the disposal process begins at the new facility, it will mark the first time in decades that much of the stockpile has been moved from storage.
THE NEW FACILITY
The Blue Grass Chemical-Agent Destruction Pilot Plant has blast-proof rooms with 2-feet-thick concrete walls that can contain an explosion. Though construction is finished, officials will spend years testing dummy rockets and projectiles, to make sure everything is perfect before going live with real weapons. It was built by a joint venture of Bechtel National Inc. and Parsons Government Services. The plant is slated to be finished with disposal in 2023.
The plant will use a neutralization method that dismantles the weapons and mixes the deadly agent with chemicals and water. The new mixture is then moved into supercritical water oxidation units that break it down into carbon dioxide, water and salts. Seven other U.S. facilities have completed disposal of chemical weapons stockpiles and an eighth site in Pueblo, Colorado, is in the testing phase.
In the 1980s, the Army announced it was planning to dispose of Kentucky's chemical weapons by burning them. Citizens, led by activist Craig Williams, opposed incinerating the weapons and urged the Army to pick another method. Williams, a Vietnam veteran, expanded the activist group into an international coalition that opposed burning chemical weapons as a disposal method. Williams toured the facility with reporters on Tuesday, and marveled at how far the project has come since breaking ground in 2003.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS ALMOST EXTINCT
During the 20th century up to the 1960s, the U.S. acquired 30,600 tons of mustard and nerve agents, but it never used them in war. Nearly 90 percent of the original stockpile has been destroyed, mostly by incineration. Along with Kentucky's 523 tons, the depot in Pueblo is home to 2,611 tons of mustard agent in projectiles and mortar rounds. The Pueblo destruction plant will also use a neutralization method to destroy most of its stock of the deadly weapons.