Syria meets first chemical weapons deadline, but much harder ones ahead

Syria has destroyed its equipment for making chemical weapons, but now it must destroy its stockpile. Similar efforts in the US show that the process is long and complicated.

In this photo made from video released by the Syrian official news agency SANA last week, a chemical weapons expert works at a chemical weapons plant at an unknown location in Syria.

The chemical weapons watchdog agency monitoring Syria’s progress announced Thursday that the country has destroyed its chemical weapons manufacturing equipment one day ahead of the deadline.

Now, however, Syria must embark upon a far trickier endeavor: destroying its chemical weapons stockpile.

The experience of the United States – which has repeatedly fallen behind schedule in its efforts to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpile – may prove instructive.

“It’s been harder to get rid of them than originally originally planned,” says Christopher Bidwell, senior fellow for nonproliferation law and policy at the Federation of American Scientists.

There are the environmental challenges and community concerns, particularly post-9/11, about handling dangerous chemicals that could be an enticing terrorist target.

When the United States originally signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997, the final deadline to destroy all chemical agents was April 2012. Now the Pentagon estimates that it will be finished in 2023 – and that’s if sequester cuts and other budget constraints don’t get in the way.

“This is a very high priority program, but especially with the fiscal uncertainty, it could slow things down potentially,” says Jennifer Elzea, a Defense Department spokesperson. “But it hasn’t yet.”

To date, the US government has destroyed roughly 90 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal, according to the US military. That’s more than 27,900 tons of mustard gas and sarin – the same chemical weapons that the Syrian government has stockpiled, though US quantities are about three times larger.

The destruction of the remaining 10 percent is on hold while the US Army finishes building two new plants for destroying the chemicals in Blue Grass, Ky., and Pueblo, Colo.

The new plants will use the latest in chemical weapons disposal technologies, including water oxidation and biotreatments to break down the chemical weapons compounds. Previous sites had primarily used incineration.

The new technologies are preferable because, “There’s a huge environmental problem with incineration,” says Mr. Bidwell, a former US Navy officer.

The smoke and ash can go into the atmosphere, into the water table, and into the ground water. “That’s the exact concern that we’re having in Syria right now” as destruction of Syrian materials prepares to get underway, he adds.

The total cost to destroy 90 percent of the US chemical weapons stockpile is estimated to be $26.4 billion, according to the US Army. It will cost $10.1 billion more to destroy the remaining 10 percent – a $36.5 billion program all told.

The Pentagon began destroying chemical weapons according to environmental and state regulations. The ash was “not expected to be problematic at first,” Ms. Elzea of the Defense Department said in an e-mail, but ultimately was found to contain “high heavy metal contents for items like mercury. Once that was discovered, the permits were modified, testing for heavy metals was implemented, and all waste cleared to the new permit specification which was then sent to hazardous waste landfills for ultimate disposal.”

The good news for Syria is that it didn't mix the ingredients for mustard gas and for sarin, Bidwell says. Prior to being mixed, some of the chemicals are “pretty common and burn easily.”

The US arsenal is more challenging because it includes more “modern” versions of chemical weapons, “which are more complex,” Bidwell adds.

The Blue Grass site, the smaller of the two US stockpiles left, contains just over 500 tons of nerve agents and sarin, as well as mustard gas blister agents. What makes it particularly complex is that the stockpile is loaded into munitions – or weaponized.

In total, there are more than 100,000 munitions, including M55 nerve agent rockets. The head of the US Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternative Program (ACWA), has said that the M55 rockets are “the most hazardous munitions” because they are fully loaded with fuses, chemical weapons, and propellants.

They are also the only US chemical weapons built with a lighter aluminum body “which was feared to be potentially leaky,” says Gregory Mahall, chief of public affairs for the US Army Chemical Materials Activity in Aberdeen, Md.

Pueblo contains some 780,000 munitions, with mustard gas but no M55 rockets.

Destruction of weapons there is slated to begin in 2015 and be completed in 2019. At Blue Grass, construction isn’t expected to finish until 2017, with destruction of weapons to start in 2020 and to be completed by 2023.

The military has already built and then decommissioned seven previous disposal sites, which are now in various states of being taken “back to grass,” says Elzea.

Still, despite these newer methods of disposal there has been some predictable community opposition.

While the Army is quick to point out its extensive safeguards, there have been accidents.

Some weapons “champagne’d” on opening, Mr. Mahall writes in an e-mail to the Monitor, “spewing mustard across the room and on walls and into sump pumps. Some agent had jellied or crystallized in storage,” making planned liquid drainage difficult.

Today, much of community concern centers around the possibility of a terrorist attack or accident.

The ACWA website notes that it would take “an accident such as an explosion or fire in order for the public to be exposed to mustard agent from the Army’s chemical weapons stockpile.” In a fire, “most of the agent would burn up,” but there would be “some” that “would stay in the smoke.”

“If an accident occurred, a plume would drift away from the scene and small drops of the blister agent might fall to the ground.”

Because the vapor would travel farther from the accident, “It would be a greater danger over a larger area. Invisible mustard vapors would expand beyond any visible smoke, and the faint garlic-like odor of mustard would not be a trustworthy sign of a hazard because lower levels of vapor, which are odorless, can be harmful.”

As a result, communities have filed lawsuits and the process for destroying the chemical weapons has been delayed. Lawsuits will likely not pose a similar obstacle in Syria.

In the US, analysts express appreciation for the transparency of ACWA’s website, and while America has not met the deadlines of the Chemical Weapons Convention, “We have certainly met the spirit,” Bidwell says. “There’s been no intent to deceive – it’s just that these things take time.”

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