Pentagon Pushes Back Chemical Weapons Disposal Schedule

The U.S. Defense Department on Tuesday said it had pushed back by two years the estimated schedule for complete elimination of the nation's stockpile of chemical warfare materials (see GSN, Feb. 15).

An additional $2 billion in projected costs are also being added to the full operations of the Army's Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, bring the total estimate to $10.6 billion, according to a press release.

The agency is assigned to destroy roughly 2,600 tons of mustard agent held at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and 523 tons of blister and nerve agents at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.

Those installations store the last 10 percent of the U.S. chemical stockpile; a separate Army agency completed disposal of the other 90 percent earlier this year (see GSN, Jan. 24).

Construction continues on chemical neutralization plants at the Colorado and Kentucky depots. Anticipated completion of demilitarization operations at Pueblo has now been delayed from 2017 to 2019, while the schedule for finishing off the Blue Grass stockpile has moved from 2021 to 2023.

The United States is a member nation to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires full disposal of banned materials by April 29. The Pentagon has long acknowledged it would not meet that deadline. Member states to the accord late last year demanded a program of heightened reporting and transparency for disposal efforts in the United States and two other nations set to breach the disposal schedule -- Libya and Russia (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2011).

“The U.S. is unwavering in its commitment to achieving 100 percent destruction of its chemical weapons as soon as possible, consistent with the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) imperatives of public safety, environmental protection, and international transparency,” ACWA chief Conrad Whyne said in provided comments. “Part of that transparency is being open about the need to identify potential uncertainties in our planning.  By doing so, we can acquire the appropriate resources and apply them to minimize or mitigate impact.”

According to the release, "the new estimates represent a conservative planning approach based on experience with earlier chemical destruction facilities and include the time necessary to resolve problems as an element of prudent management."

Added Whyne: "Estimating costs and schedules for large, complex construction projects which will use new processes and handle aging and dangerous materials and are subject to comprehensive regulation, involves a great deal of uncertainty, which we’ve now taken into account. This may include anything from hiring qualified personnel, testing or equipment issues, to acquiring supplies and materials.  If these issues are not encountered, the schedules can be shortened and destruction operations completed sooner.  It is our continuous objective to shorten the estimated schedule, consistent with safety and environmental compliance considerations" (U.S. Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives release, April 17).

The nongovernmental Chemical Weapons Working Group described the new figures as the "worst-case estimate."

"We don't expect the projects to take this long or cost this much," Craig Williams, head of the Kentucky-based organization, said in a release, "but in order to ensure the funds are there, just in case they are needed, the elongated schedule was brought forward" (Chemical Weapons Working Group release, April 17).

April 17, 2012

The U.S. Defense Department on Tuesday said it had pushed back by two years the estimated schedule for complete elimination of the nation's stockpile of chemical warfare materials.