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Portsmouth ship part of plan to destroy Syria's chemical arms

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — A retired cargo ship that's been docked for years near the Midtown Tunnel is at the center of international plans to destroy Syria's chemical weapons.

At a media briefing Thursday, defense officials confirmed that the Pentagon has begun retrofitting the MV Cape Ray with two "field deployable hydrolysis systems," a technology the Department of Defense developed this year to quickly neutralize components used in chemical weapons.

"We are taking steps to begin planning for the potential mission," Pentagon spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said, noting that the U.S. is still awaiting final confirmation from the international community.

Details of the high-profile mission began trickling out last week. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is supervising the disposal of Syria's chemical arms, revealed that the U.S. had offered to destroy some of the most dangerous components on an American ship.

Hampton Roads boaters may be familiar with the ship at the heart of the still-developing plan. The Cape Ray — a 648-foot vessel docked indefinitely at General Dynamics NASSCO Earl Industries Shipyard — has long been a fixture along the Portsmouth waterfront, where Scott's Creek meets the Elizabeth River. The massive gray ship is easily seen from downtown Norfolk.

The U.S. government bought the Cape Ray in 1993 from a Saudi Arabian shipping company that had planned to scrap the cargo ship — formerly known as the Saudi Makkah. The Transportation Department's Maritime Administration renamed the ship, painted it gray, added cargo ramps and then stashed it at a dock on the Elizabeth River — just in case.

The Cape Ray is part of the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Fleet, a collection of 46 ships across the country that are kept in a near-operational state. It's one of three reserve ships docked in Portsmouth.

The ships are maintained with skeleton crews — nine mariners typically staff the Cape Ray — and can be activated to fully operational status within five to 10 days. The reserve fleet has most frequently been called on to help during the initial stages of a military surge, but its ships have also been tapped to help deliver relief supplies after major disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Cape Ray was activated twice in the past decade, each time to help move military supplies for the Iraq war.

It was buzzing with activity again on Thursday.

Department of Defense civilians began mounting the two mobile hydrolysis units below deck, defense officials said. The units will be enclosed in a special tent equipped with an advanced filtration system, ensuring that any chemical leaks would be contained. The entire neutralization operation would take place below deck, defense officials said.

If it gets the green light on the mission, the ship would come under the control of the Navy's Military Sealift Command. It would be staffed with a crew of about 100 people — a mix of Defense Department civilians and private contractors, defense officials said.

Under the working plan, several hundred tons of chemicals would be loaded into shipping containers in Syria, moved to Latakia, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean Sea, and transferred to a non-Syrian port. To avoid docking in the war-torn country, the Cape Ray would pick up the containers from a third country, destroy the chemicals while at sea, then offload the waste at a commercial treatment facility, defense officials said.

The Pentagon began developing the field-deployable hydrolysis system in response to the Syrian civil war. The system — which takes an existing technology and makes it mobile — went through final testing this summer.

Neutralization is achieved by mixing hazardous chemical agents with water and other chemicals, and then heating the mixture.

If given the OK, the Cape Ray would be tasked with destroying an estimated 500 tons of chemicals, including nerve agents, that the international community has deemed too dangerous to move to another country for destruction.

The agreement for removing the chemical weapons from Syria calls for them to be gone by Dec. 31.

Each mobile hydrolysis system can neutralize between 5 and 25 metric tons of chemicals a day.

The Pentagon has already started training crew members for the operation, officials said Thursday. Sea trials could be held within weeks; the goal is to have the ship prepared to sail next month.

Although the plan remains in flux, the Pentagon has already worked out its endgame. After the operation, the chemical neutralization equipment would be removed from the Cape Ray, which would be scrubbed clean and return to its mooring in Portsmouth.

mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com
 

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