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

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 10:40 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) 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.

Workers at Deseret Chemical Depot prepare a pallet of M55 VX nerve agent-filled rockets for transport from the depot's chemical agent storage area to the nearby Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facilityfor destruction. The depot's inventory of more than 7,800 of the rockets were safely destroyed in 2003. (U.S. Army) Workers at Deseret Chemical Depot prepare a pallet of M55 VX nerve agent-filled rockets for transport from the depot's chemical agent storage area to the nearby Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facilityfor destruction. The depot's inventory of more than 7,800 of the rockets were safely destroyed in 2003. (U.S. Army)

"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.

An on-site container containing VX agent-filled M55 rockets will be sealed before being pulled by a truck a short distance to the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. (U.S. Army) An on-site container containing VX agent-filled M55 rockets will be sealed before being pulled by a truck a short distance to the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. (U.S. Army)

"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.

The Area Ten Liquid Incinerator and its pollution abatement system were initially constructed at Brahma Construction Companys Lakepoint facility. This allowed the equipment to be tested prior to installation at the Deseret Chemical Depot to ensure the system was operating efficiently (U.S. Army) The Area Ten Liquid Incinerator and its pollution abatement system were initially constructed at Brahma Construction Companys Lakepoint facility. This allowed the equipment to be tested prior to installation at the Deseret Chemical Depot to ensure the system was operating efficiently (U.S. Army)

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.

Workers at Deseret Chemical Depot transport one of the last lewisite ton containers from the rolling cart into the glove box, which is then sealed tight. (U.S. Army) Workers at Deseret Chemical Depot transport one of the last lewisite ton containers from the rolling cart into the glove box, which is then sealed tight. (U.S. Army)

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."

A vial containing less than 1 milliliter of mustard agent is prepared for analysis at Deseret Chemical Depot. (U.S. Army) A vial containing less than 1 milliliter of mustard agent is prepared for analysis at Deseret Chemical Depot. (U.S. Army)

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.

Workers at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility must ensure that their protective equipment is working correctly before entering a toxic area. The worker is wearing a mask that was originally designed for use with the self-contained breathing apparatus, but later converted for use with the DPE suits. (U.S. Army) Workers at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility must ensure that their protective equipment is working correctly before entering a toxic area. The worker is wearing a mask that was originally designed for use with the self-contained breathing apparatus, but later converted for use with the DPE suits. (U.S. Army)

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.

Workers move the last two lewisite ton containers into the Area 10 Liquid Incinerator for destruction Jan. 17, 2012. Deseret Chemical Depots small stockpile of lewisite blister agent was the only stockpile in the United States. This movement of munitions was the last for Deseret Chemical Depot, marking the end of nearly 70 years of storing chemical weapons. (U.S. Army) Workers move the last two lewisite ton containers into the Area 10 Liquid Incinerator for destruction Jan. 17, 2012. Deseret Chemical Depots small stockpile of lewisite blister agent was the only stockpile in the United States. This movement of munitions was the last for Deseret Chemical Depot, marking the end of nearly 70 years of storing chemical weapons. (U.S. Army)

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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