Utah knows: Destruction of Syria's chemical weapons will be a daunting task
Amy Blauser, the community outreach officer at the Tooele Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office, said the sarin was destroyed first according to a schedule that eliminated the most dangerous weapons first.
Tooele was tasked with the destruction of multiple nerve agents such as taubin and sarin, as well as blister agents mustard and lewisite, which smells like geraniums but contains arsenic. Its process of "demilitarizing" those chemical weapons included destroying more than 1 million munitions such as M55 rockets, VX rockets, mortar rounds and projectiles.
"It was a complex process here at our site," she said. "With such a variety of agents and munitions combined with their age, you never knew what you were going to run into in terms of the stockpile here."
The aging munitions presented unique challenges to get them destroyed, Blauser said, such as mustard that gelled around the nose of the projectiles so they had to be physically cut to be destroyed.
"We had to take care of them one at a time," she said.
Tooele also had to build a special liquid incinerator to take care of the lewisite.
With that in mind, Blauser and others wonder what type of challenges would be encountered with Syria's stockpile — estimated at more than 1,000 metric tons and scattered in as many as 45 to 50 locations, and with no facilities for destruction in place.
"It would seem to me they would have to move those weapons out of there to safely dispose of them or they are going to have to figure out how to neutralize them nearby," Erickson said.
Some media reports indicated that some of the stockpile is already on the move, being smuggled out of the country in the back of vegetable trucks headed for Hezbollah-controlled regions in Lebanon. Other stories have reported the weapons are being siphoned to Russian warships to be safely sequestered out of reach of international scrutiny.
Leaving the stockpile intact, however, would present its own array of problems in a country besieged by civil war in which 100,000 people have died and a state of emergency has been in effect for 48 years.
"It's a lingering problem of huge proportions," Erickson said.
Matthews pointed out that even in an atmosphere of developed emergency response systems and a legacy of cooperation among local, state and federal governments, the elimination of the Tooele stockpile was not without its challenges.
"It took much longer time than expected, and the fact that these two other sites in the United States have not started yet is evidence of that," he said.
Two stockpiles of chemical weapons remain in the United States — Bluegrass, Ky., with just shy of 524 tons and Pueblo, Colo., with 2,611 tons.
Congress mandated those stockpiles be destroyed by neutralization rather than incineration, leading to delays in the elimination of weapons from those sites. Both facilities are ramping up to begin destruction, but Pueblo is not slated to be finished until at least 2019 and in Kentucky, with a much smaller amount than Syria, completion is not set until 2023.
"Obviously we should have not built this stuff in the first place," Erickson said. "I think it is a really daunting process that they are facing there. This could take a long time."
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