Utah knows: Destruction of Syria's chemical weapons will be a daunting task

Published: Saturday, Sept. 21 2013 2:40 p.m. MDT

As part of the annual 2008 U.S. Army Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program exercise at Deseret Chemical Depot, workers prepare to clean up a mock mustard agent spill, when a plug pops out of a mock mustard ton container during transportation. Workers successfully demonstrated their emergency readiness during the annual 2008 program exercise.

U.S. Army

SALT LAKE CITY — It's taken billions of dollars, decades, congressional directives and the methodical application of the best technology for the United States to eliminate nearly all of its chemical weapons — but the country isn't there yet.

And now, with Syria accused of war crimes by leveling sarin nerve agent at its civilian population during a civil war, Russia and the United States say Syria must destroy all of its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

"That is never going to happen," said Wade Matthews, the public communications officer for Tooele County's Emergency Management Division. He is also a homegrown Tooele boy who grew up working a summer job at what would become known as Deseret Chemical Depot.

"Even the United States has not met its treaty deadline."

Those deadlines set by the Chemical Weapons Convention have come and gone multiple times for the United States, which still has 10 percent of its stockpile left to destroy, and for Russia, which has 11,000 tons left to go.

"It is hugely dangerous and an expensive proposition," said Steve Erickson, a longtime community activist who has kept a close eye on the dismantling of Utah's stockpile over the years.

Utah, in fact, was the test tube to develop methods for safely destroying chemical weapons. The country's chemical stockpile elimination program’s research and development facility — called the Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System — operated for more than 25 years in Tooele County.

It was there that it developed and tested chemical weapons destruction methods and procedures, destroying more than 363,000 pounds of chemical agents and more than 40,000 munitions during that time.

In Utah, once official operations began in 1996 at Deseret Chemical Depot, it took 16 years and $3 billion to eliminate what was once the nation's largest stockpile of chemical weapons that had languished in storage in the western desert since World War II.

"It was a successful process but it took a lot of years, a lot of money, a lot of oversight, a lot of care and caution and a qualified workforce to get it done," Erickson said. "And I am not sure if you have much in terms of those assets over there in Syria."

On Friday, Syria submitted a declaration of its chemical weapons inventory to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international group tasked with the oversight of the convention.

The submission comes on the heels of a United Nations investigation and Monday's release of a report which concluded that sarin — a deadly nerve agent so toxic a tiny drop can kill — had been used on a civilian population outside of Damascus in an Aug. 21 attack. The U.S. believes as many as 1,400 people were killed, hundreds of them children.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has been described as the most significant deployment of chemical weapons since 1988, when Iraq's Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the village of Halabja.

In the aftermath, the United States threatened a military strike — which remains on the table if Syria doesn't follow the provisions of the convention and the agreement.

Erickson and others involved in what played out in Utah admit they are intrigued and skeptical over what lies ahead for Syria and the international community.

After it missed the treaty deadline of 2007, Deseret Chemical Depot met the new international convention deadline of 2012 — effectively eliminating the last of the 13,617 tons of nerve, blister agent in January of last year.

Tooele's supply included more than 12 million pounds of sarin, the largest stockpile of that agent in the country and more than twice what was stored at the eight other U.S. sites.

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