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DoD: Chemical weapons stored in Panama staying put

U.S. Department of Defense officials said they don't plan to send any chemical weapons from Panama to New Mexico for disposal as Panamanian authorities previously reported.

Although chemical weapons were stored at Fort Wingate, N.M., they were removed from the state in 1944, officials said.

"Relocation of the munitions from Panama to the Unites States is not an option being considered by the United States government, nor is it an option being discussed between the two countries," said Jenn Elzea, spokeswoman for the DOD in Washington, D.C.

"The U.S. Department of Defense is planning to send a team of chemical weapons experts to assess the munitions identified by the Panamanians for appropriate future destruction options," Elzea said. "Those options may include on-site incineration or neutralization, depending upon the types, quantities, and state of the agent found within the munitions."

Elzea said, "Land disposal (burial) of chemical munitions, like those identified and located at San Jose Island in Panama, at any location in the U.S. is not a credible option from a legal or technical perspective, and therefore not one the U.S. government will consider."

The United States is a participating nation in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which among other things, prohibits developing, producing, acquiring, retaining or transferring chemical weapons

U.S. officials said after a team of experts assess the weapons located on San Jose Island, the Army's Chemical Materials Agency will determine whether and when they should be added to the list of chemicals to be destroyed and or otherwise disposed of properly.

The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency is responsible for destroying the U.S. chemical weapons stockpiled across the continental United States and at the Johnson Atoll in Hawaii. San Jose Island was not included in the original list of chemical weapons sites to be cleared.

Officials said the destruction process, conducted over several years to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention, is complete. Chemical stockpile and destruction sites were located in Oregon, Indiana, Maryland, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Utah and the Johnston Atoll.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the only place in the EPA's Region 6, which includes Texas and New Mexico, authorized to receive and process pre-treated chemical weapons waste is the Violea facility in Port Arthur, Texas. The Army Chemical Materials Agency has an open contract with Violea, officials said.

In a Nov. 21 statement posted online by Panama's Foreign Minister Fernando Núñez Fábrega after his Nov. 13 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Núñez Fábrega said the U.S. military had agreed to evaluate "the fragility of chemical weapons in San Jose Island with the goal of moving and transporting them by sea toward to the New Mexico desert, where they will be buried."

The U.S. chemical weapons -- some containing dangerous substances like mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide and other agents of mass destruction -- were left behind from tests during the 1940s at San Jose Island, Panamanian officials said.

Panama's federal government removed the earlier posting from its website, and officials did not return messages to explain the change.

Since the Panamanian government's Nov. 21, announcement, The U.S. State Department referred all questions about San Jose Island to the Defense Department.

In a recent State Department video and statements posted online, Kerry said he met with Núñez Fábrega and discussed the disposal of the U.S. chemical weapons.

"We have also worked together closely on the issue of how to destroy some old Word War II chemical weapons munitions that are on San Jose Island, and we're working on that issue as well as cooperating on counternarcotics initiatives," Kerry said.

The presence of U.S. chemical munitions in Panama has been a lingering issue between the two countries for years since the U.S. and Panama signed a treaty in 1977 to return control of the Panama Canal to that country.

The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), an interfaith advocacy organization based in the Netherlands, reported that mustard gas and distilled mustard (H, HD), phosgene (CG), cyanogen chloride (CK), hydrogen cyanide (AC), and butane, and possibly also Lewisite were among the chemicals that the U.S. military tested at San Jose Island.

"(The) number of munitions tested are known for 18 of the 130 tests conducted on San Jose Island. Some 4,397 chemical munitions were fired in these 18 tests, for an average of 244 munitions fired in each test," IFOR said. "Most of the munitions fired -- 3,816 -- were 4.2-inch mortars charged with Cyanogen Chloride, mustard, or phosgene, but the chemical munitions also included bombs from 100 pounds to 1,000 pounds in weight and 105mm Howitzer shells."

Chemical weapons were stored at Fort Wingate, N.M., during the 1940s, Army officials reported. The old post, which was closed in 1993, is off Interstate 40, about 130 miles west of Albuquerque and eight miles east of Gallup.

"Status reports of chemical-filled ordnance dated 1 May 1942, stated that 28,932 75mm shells (mustard-filled) and 46,669 155mm shells (mustard-filled) were in storage at Fort Wingate," according to the Army Chemical Materials Agency.

"The U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit records also state that 45 carloads of mustard-filled munitions were shipped from Fort Wingate, New Mexico, to the Black Hills Ordnance Depot, South Dakota, on 6 March 1944."

Pershing and Sergeant missile systems were test-fired at Fort Wingate, which formerly housed the 37th U.S. Infantry and 3rd Cavalry and other units.

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