A team of civilian specialists from Aberdeen Proving Ground is headed to the Mediterranean Sea for what is being called a historic mission to destroy Syria's chemical warfare stockpile — an effort that could serve as a model in the drive to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction.
The 64 civilians and contractors from the Edgewood Area are at the center of an international mission to neutralize up to 700 tons of chemical agents surrendered by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The chemists, environmental engineers and other specialists have decades of experience in destroying U.S. and other weapons stocks — at highly secure and often remote facilities, on land, built for the purpose.
Now, for the first time, they're planning to do the work aboard ship, on the open sea, using a system they developed over the past year in anticipation of the mission. If that system is successful, officials say, it could be used again and again, anywhere there are hazardous materials to be destroyed.
"When we look around the globe, there are other nations that possess chemical weapons," said Carmen Spencer, the Pentagon's joint project executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "This demonstrates to the world that a capability exists that can be deployed anywhere in the world that can, in fact, safely and environmentally responsibly, destroy [them].
"So we are hoping that the world takes notice, and those nations that possess [them] would be willing to give them up."
Paul Walker, who speaks and writes on nonproliferation for the advocacy group Green Cross International, called the shipboard destruction "new, historic and unique."
"The big issue was, if you can't destroy these weapons in the middle of a civil war in Syria, how else do you do it?" he said. "I think this will be very useful in special cases where we have high-toxic waste, especially chemical weapons-related, that needs to be destroyed."
Adam Baker, a chemical engineer at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, was one of dozens who volunteered for the four-month mission.
"It just feels like a once-in-a-career opportunity," he said. "Just a notable thing to say that you were involved in."
The system designed by the Edgewood team has been loaded onto the container ship MV Cape Ray, which is scheduled to leave Portsmouth, Va., on Monday for Italy.
At the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, the ship is to take on Syrian stocks of liquid mustard agent and other chemicals and head for international waters, where the team plans to spend four months neutralizing them.
The mission is not without controversy. Originally, the materials were to be destroyed in Albania, but a public outcry there led the government to rescind its offer. No other country volunteered to host the operation, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons made the decision to destroy the materials at sea.
Still, Greece and Turkey have raised concerns. And while the government of Italy said the chemicals could be transferred at Gioia Tauro, the mayor of that southwestern port town said this month that he would contest the plan.
Walker, who helped oversee the destruction of U.S. chemical stocks as a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the Syria mission "a big, major step forward" — but says it would benefit from better public relations.
"There is a need for the [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] and the U.S. government to do a lot more outreach," he said.
Under the threat last year of a U.S. military strike, Assad acknowledged having a chemical arsenal and agreed to turn the stocks over to the international community to be destroyed.
The United States and others blamed Assad for an attack Aug. 21 with the nerve agent sarin that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Assad has denied the accusation.
By then, the Edgewood team had developed a deployable system. Pentagon leaders had seen a need for such a system in December 2012, after the first reports that Syria had used chemical weapons on opposition fighters.
The Pentagon gave the scientists and engineers at Edgewood until June to get it ready. The team expedited the project, delivering within months a system that ordinarily would have taken years to develop.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons outlined the mission in December.
Syria is responsible for transporting hazardous materials from 12 sites to the port of Latakia and loading it onto ships volunteered by Denmark and Norway.
Russia is to provide security. An emergency response team from Finland will stand by in case of an accident. China has sent ambulances.
When the ships are loaded, Denmark and Norway are to take the chemicals to Gioia Tauro to be transferred to the Cape Ray.
The 648-foot ship was built by Japan in the 1970s for Saudi Arabia to haul offshore oil rigs. Acquired by the U.S. Maritime Administration in 1994, it is now used to move large pieces of equipment. It is operated by a crew of 35 mariners.
The Edgewood team based the new Field Deployable Hydrolysis System on the technology used to destroy the U.S. stock of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.
"What we have on board the Cape Ray is basically a shrunk-down, transportable, modular version of the facility that was right here," said Brian O'Donnell, a chemist at Edgewood.
The team is expecting 540 tons of DF, a precursor to sarin, and 26 tons of mustard, a World War I blister agent.
Syria has also declared 130 tons of Solution A, which is used to make the nerve agent VX, but it is not clear whether it will be destroyed on the Cape Ray or sent directly to a hazardous-waste disposal facility.
Mustard and DF are destroyed in the same way: They are mixed with water.
The resulting effluent is acidic. Team members will add chemicals to bring the pH level above neutral, creating a caustic liquid that Edgewood chemist Rob Malone likens to Drano. That is intended to make it safer to store and transport.
That product, while no longer a warfare agent, remains a hazardous waste. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is weighing bids from companies in several countries, including the United States, to dispose of it.
Officials stressed that no materials would be dumped into the sea.
Joseph Wienand, technical director at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, said team members would not handle the materials directly. The chemicals are to be mixed in a closed container, and the resulting effluent is to be discharged into closed containers. Members are to wear masks with air hoses.
"The entire operation was designed for the safety of the personnel and the environment," Wienand said.
Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds in England, said the process "looks really good."
The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, he said, "looks really helpful, largely because of the sheer quantity of material it can deal with in a day. ... It is so heartening to see so many countries working together to remove the chemical weapons."
The precise location where the team will carry out the work has yet to be determined. The Cape Ray is to be protected by an international force that will include the U.S. Navy.
O'Donnell expressed confidence in the security arrangements.
"We're looking inward," he said. "We have people who are looking outward for us."
Two 12-hour shifts of workers are to operate two hydrolysis systems 24 hours a day, six days a week. Factoring in the possibility that rough seas could force work stoppages, officials expect the operation to take 120 days.
Spencer said that "safety trumps schedule."
"We are not tied specifically to a schedule," he said. "Safety will determine how much and how fast we process."