U.S. Concedes It Will Miss Final Chemical Weapons Destruction Deadline

WASHINGTON — The United States cannot destroy all of its chemical weapons until at least 2008 and possibly as late as 2016, according to legislators and defense officials who spoke at a congressional hearing yesterday. The estimates mean that Washington will certainly miss the 2007 deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention to destroy the entire U.S. stockpile (see GSN, May 7).

“We will not meet the 100-percent destruction deadline,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical Demilitarization and Counterproliferation Patrick Wakefield told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities.

Treaty parties last week granted the United States a three-year extension on an interim destruction deadline, moving back the requirement for destroying 45 percent of U.S. chemical weapons to April 2007 (see GSN, Oct. 27). Wakefield said yesterday that the United States would soon request to extend the deadline for destroying the total stockpile as well.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said last week that, besides extending the U.S. 45-percent deadline and other deadlines for partial elimination of U.S. and Russian stockpiles, it had “extended in principle” the deadlines for complete stockpile destruction. The treaty allows for a five-year extension on the final deadline if the parties agree.

The subcommittee heard various projections yesterday for when the United States would complete the total destruction of the U.S. stockpile, which once totaled 31,000 metric tons and is still at about 74 percent of that figure, but no speaker said the stockpile would be destroyed by 2007.

Representative Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) cited a date of 2014 for complete destruction of the stockpile, while U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency Director Michael Parker said the current “target” is “2008 to 2011” for 100 percent destruction at all sites ― except at a chemical neutralization site in Kentucky, for which no schedule has been set (see GSN, June 18). The head of nuclear and chemical efforts in the Homeland Security Department’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, Craig Conklin, said operations at the Anniston, Ala., chemical weapons incinerator could continue until 2016 (see GSN, Oct. 30).

Washington “risks not meeting” the possible 2012 extended deadline, said General Accounting Office Defense Capabilities and Management Managing Director Henry Hinton. Hinton’s testimony drew heavily on a Sept. 5 GAO report indicating that the U.S. disposal program is in “turmoil” owing to poor leadership (see GSN, Sept. 8).

“GAO believes that further delays will occur and costs will grow even higher,” Hinton said yesterday, referring to persistent delays in the U.S. program and a total estimated cost that has ballooned from an initial figure of $1.7 billion to a current estimate of more than $25 billion.

As for the newly set 2007 deadline for destroying 45 percent of the stockpile, Parker said the United States is “very confident” of reaching the mark on time.

Army Struggles to Streamline Program as Congress FretsEarly this year, in the face of mounting concern about delays and cost overruns, the United States created the Army Chemical Materials Agency and placed Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Claude Bolton in charge of chemical weapons disposal.

Bolton initially “resisted” taking the responsibility, he said at yesterday’s hearing, “until I was assured that … we could put some things in place” to remedy the management problems that have dogged the effort. He said he was promised cooperation in implementing streamlined management, developing a clear focus for the effort and setting goals and ways of measuring progress toward them.

“We are making progress that will allow us to get a handle on the cost,” said Bolton. Both Wakefield and Parker added that the creation of the Chemical Materials Agency would improve the situation.

The chemical weapon destruction program draws on numerous facilities to perform various processes, and timelines diverge significantly at the different sites. Chemical weapons destruction has ended at Johnson Atoll, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific, and is under way in Anniston and at sites in Maryland and Utah, officials said yesterday. Bolton said sites in Oregon and Arkansas are “complete and undergoing systematization” and that construction of an Indiana facility is nearly complete, while related installations in Colorado and Kentucky ― run by the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternative Program, not the Chemical Materials Agency ― will contribute to the effort as well.

With the complex operation many times over cost and potentially set to fall behind by as much as a decade, subcommittee members expressed concerns of proliferation and wasted tax dollars.

Meehan said the huge remaining stock of chemical agents ― the result, he said, of other Defense Department priorities’ having “won out in the resource game” ― poses a risk of theft by “terrorists seeking to wreak havoc on American citizens.” Subcommittee Chairman Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) added of the program’s cost, “We have lots of uses to which we can put this amount of dollars.”

Among other responses to such criticisms, the chemical weapons disposal officials stressed that other countries have also fallen behind.

“A number of the other countries are having problems in meeting the convention, said Bolton, adding that in spite of delays and rising costs, “We have done it extremely well, better than anybody else in the world, and we’ve done it safely, and … we have a program that’s coming together in a manner that makes sense.”

Added Parker, “The nation being able to commit $25 billion … I think demonstrates to the world that we’re serious about disposing of chemical weapons.”

October 31, 2003
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WASHINGTON — The United States cannot destroy all of its chemical weapons until at least 2008 and possibly as late as 2016, according to legislators and defense officials who spoke at a congressional hearing yesterday. The estimates mean that Washington will certainly miss the 2007 deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention to destroy the entire U.S. stockpile (see GSN, May 7).

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