PUEBLO, Colo. (MCT) — The first of more than 780,000 mustard gas shells at the Pueblo Chemical Depot will be destroyed this fall, after more than two decades of planning and building machinery to rid America of one of its last Cold War stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The Depot marked the long-awaited beginning with a Thursday ceremony at the high-security site, 50 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. The $3.5 billion destruction program will run for at least five years. Full-scale operations begin in 2015.
"Yes, we're getting closer, but we're not quite there yet," said Conrad Whyne, the Army's chemical weapons destruction program officer. "We will not start until we are truly ready to start?."
Whyne said the depot, which will destroy the final 10 percent of the American chemical weapons stockpile, will begin the process by dealing with more than 500 leaking shells through a process of controlled detonations.
The start of the work is a victory for Pueblo, where local politicians fought for years to keep the destruction program in Colorado rather than seeing the shells, which were built in the 1950s, shipped to destruction facilities elsewhere. The destruction program employs nearly 1,000 workers.
"For more than 25 years, the citizens of Pueblo have waited for the day when we could say the chemical weapons at the depot are being destroyed," said Irene Kornelly, who heads the depot's citizen's advisory committee.
Mustard gas was first used in World War I, and seldom used after it. But it became a staple of the world's chemical weapons stockpiles. It is a gooey substance that combines sulfur and chlorine in a chemical cocktail. When the shells detonate, the chemicals are dispersed as an aerosol, causing chemical burns on those who are caught within the cloud. The burns cause painful skin blistering, blindness and can kill those who inhale the mustard agent.
America built huge stores of the weapons to counterbalance Russian chemical programs. America hasn't used chemical weapons in combat since World War I.
John Nerger, an official with the Army's Material Command called mustard gas, "a weapons system that accomplished its mission of deterrence without ever being moved from its storage sites."
The beginning of mustard gas destruction at Pueblo comes two years after the final deadline set in a international treaty banning the weapons.
"Starting this fall, the depot will begin destroying the stockpile, a mission that is expected to continue through the 2019 time frame," said Lt. Col. Michael Quinn, the depot's commander.
The depot is home to two different systems to destroy the weapons. The demilitarization plant uses robots to open the shells and wash out the chemicals with a lye solution, which renders the mustard gas harmless. That plant is still being tested and won't destroy its first shell until late 2015.
The second system, which starts next month, uses explosives to detonate leaking shells in a contained environment. The detonation chamber is then filled with a compound that will neutralize the gas.
The depot's main, $725 million, plant began testing in 2010 and has run an extensive program using 27,000 dummy shells to ensure the computers, robots and plumbing work properly.
The explosive-based system is more hands-on and is housed in a $13 million temporary facility. The explosive technique was pioneered in Colorado, where it was used in 2001 to destroy weapons at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver.
The beginning of work at Pueblo marks the end of America's chemical weapons programs, said Andrew Weber, the Defense Department's assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"Only 10 percent of our stockpile remains, and most of it will be safely destroyed right here," Weber said.
(c) 2014 The Gazette. Distributed by MCT Information Services