Blue Grass Army Depot stockpile destruction project nears completion


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Jun 14, 2023

Blue Grass Army Depot stockpile destruction project nears completion

Reporter The Blue Grass Army Depot has been home to an arsenal of potentially


The Blue Grass Army Depot has been home to an arsenal of potentially harmful chemical weapons — more than 525 U.S. tons of chemical agents, including mustard agent — since the 1940s, and the process to destroy them began on June 7, 2019. The destruction operation is currently nearing the end of its journey, with 86.9% of the remaining M55 rockets reportedly being destroyed as of June 2.

The idea to destroy the stockpile, which included projectiles and rockets containing mustard agent, VX nerve agent, and GB nerve agent, originated with the United State's (U.S.) participation in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty. As a participant, the U.S. promised to finish the destruction of its chemical weapon stockpile by Sept. 30, 2023.

According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Reduction and Arms Control Kingston Reif, Congress had already mandated the beginning of the destruction of the US chemical weapons starting in late 1980, before the negotiations that led to the treaty in 1997.

"So there have been, kind of, two processes," he said. "The international obligation is the Chemical Weapons Convention."

Reif emphasized that the destruction of the stockpile is an important historical milestone that also reinforces international trust and moral leadership.

"I can't emphasize enough the importance of meeting our commitment under the Chemical Weapons Convention for the viability of that convention, for strengthening the norm against the use of chemical weapons — especially in the current international security environment — and for our diplomatic and moral leadership…It will show the international community that we take our treaty commitments extremely seriously," he said.

However, while beneficial, the local community was not always on board with the depot's plans for storage or weapon destruction.

In the beginning years after the initial announcement, Craig Williams, who co-chairs the Kentucky Chemical Demilitarization Citizens’ Advisory Commission (CAC) and Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board (CDCAB), said, there was "antagonism, and hostility, and confrontation between the community and the government," which he said was because of "their inability, or inadequacies, in including the community in decisions that directly affected the community."

"It affected our families; it affected our children; it affected our students; it affected everyone. And they just kind of waltzed in here and said, ‘This is what we're gonna do.’ Communities… that's not how to move forward," he recalled.

However, Williams said that those negative sentiments diminished "fairly quickly" as more information became available and that citizens sprung to action to protect their local environment.

He recalled that a group researched Congressional records and identified "many, many leaks" of agents in the atmospheres near some of the previous incinerators used to destroy chemical weapons.

"When you consider Richmond had Clark Moore Middle School a mile away from the smoke stack, and you think about agent releases out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or out in the desert, and you transport that into this reality and think of chemical weapons agents wafting across playgrounds of our students. Totally unacceptable, and that was a motivator for the community to finally come together and say ‘This is not acceptable. Let's look at something else.’ Our Congressional delegation responded and created legislation to do just that that has brought us to where we are today," he said.

Williams declared that the process was a "remarkable transition," noting that he believes the program "set a standard and a model for the military and other government agencies as to how to accomplish goals cooperatively."

The CAC and CDCAB hold joint public meetings quarterly where BGCAPP staff, government officials, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) leadership, members of the Commission, and the public exchange information regarding chemical weapons destruction in Kentucky.

Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass (BPBG) Project Manager Ron Hink said that the reason that the project has no exact end date is due to an emphasis on safety.

He said that the facility has a recordable incident rate of 0.36, which he clarified means that the high-hazard facility measures safer than financial institutions, insurance agencies, or real estate."

"Our last lost-time injury was three and a half years ago," he added. "And that's any injury greater than first aid that prevented someone from coming back to work the next day. So, again, a very safe operation."

Lieutenant Colonel Tyler McKee, commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity (BGCA) — who is responsible for the storage of the chemical weapons stockpile — stated that their success in maintaining community safety was due to many factors. However, he emphasized partnerships with the local community.

"The Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) facilitates relationships between army organizations, Kentucky emergency management, Madison County Emergency Management Agency, and nine other county or county emergency management agencies. These partnerships have spanned decades and have helped to ensure maximum safety to the community through emergency response equipment, training, regular exercise — and most importantly — through mutual trust," he said.

However, Hink also shared that the GB rockets, which are the last remaining weapons, are the most challenging to process due to their age.

According to official documentation from the Blue Grass Army Depot, the weapons have been thus far destroyed using a meticulous process that begins with the transportation of pallets of rockets. The rockets are transported in protective decided known as Enhanced On-site containers (EONC).

After transport, the EONCs are monitored for leaks before opening. After each rocket is unloaded, they are X-rayed for additional leaks. If a leak is detected, which could be caused by the amount of time they have been stored, the rocket is "overpacked" — or sealed in a larger container — and returned to storage to be destroyed In the Static Detonation Chamber 2000. If the rocket does not have a leak, it is delivered for the next step via a conveyor belt and airlock.

The next step involves cutting the rocket, which is done in a machine. The machine removes the top portion of the shipping and firing tube (SFT) before making a second cut to separate the warhead from the rocket motor. From here, materials are destroyed and disposed of.

According to Dr. Candace Coyle, site project manager of BGCAPP, the weapons have been destroyed using two different methods.

"We also use a process that we call neutralization to destroy the nerve agent portion of the stockpile in what we call the main plant. Using automated technologies, equipment assembles the ammunition and the agent is drained to clean collection tanks. From there, the agent is mixed with hot water and sodium hydroxide — or caustic — and it reacts to produce a wastewater product called hydrolysate. The hydrolysate is tested to confirm chemical agent destruction at that time," explained Coyle.

Any gases created by the process are also filtered through a series of High-Efficiency Particle Air (HEPA) and carbon filters before being released into the atmosphere. According to official documentation from the depot, metal parts were also heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of 15 minutes to decontaminate them thermally.

While most of the chemical munitions onsite only required neutralization to be destroyed, drained warheads were containerized and sent for temporary storage at the depot before being destroyed in the Static Detonation Chamber 2000. Coyle explained that the Static Detonation Chamber 2000 utilizes thermal destruction technology to destroy the chemical agent and explosive ammunition.

The heat, which reached approximately 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, either detonates or deflagrates the munition. Any gases generated by this process are treated by an off-gas treatment system that includes a thermal oxidizer, scrubbers, and a carbon filter system. Officials assert that all materials are thoroughly decontaminated and screened prior to being recycled and disposed of.

After the weapons are destroyed, there is "secondary waste" that also needs to be managed.

Coyle clarified that "part of the closure phase includes destroying secondary waste using the sanitation chamber units… This waste includes rocket warheads in which the chemical agent has been drained in the main plant but residual amounts of agents still remain in the container."

After the destruction of the final weapons, the depot will undergo a closure process. Coyle clarified that "part of the closure phase includes destroying secondary waste using the sanitation chamber units… This waste includes rocket warheads in which the chemical agent has been drained in the main plant but residual amounts of agents still remain in the container."

Program Executive Officer Michael Abaie — who joined the program in Sept. 2018 — said that the closure process of the project will take approximately two to three years and that the overall cost of the project has been "well over" $32 billion.

"Closure is really about eliminating the hazard that's left behind in contaminated areas, that we will decontaminate those facilities, and decommission and ultimately demolish buildings that have been used to process this equipment, these munitions," he explained.

Following the first step is decommissioning, which Coyle said is "a rendering of equipment for safe removal, and eventual demolition, or to be used for the following use."

The third stage, she said, is going to be the disposition of the property. Then, the fourth is "demolition of facilities not required for future army use." The final stage will be "administering close out of permits, contracts, agreements, and records."

Colonel Brett Ayvazian, commander at the Blue Grass Army Depot, said, I’m excited to be part of this historic organization as we prepare to usher in a new era for the depot and Madison County."

The future of the depot is, in part, to be decided by a feasibility study being conducted due to legislation from Representative Andy Barr, who said, "This feasibility study will accelerate the process of examining ways the facility could transition to other key projects that would benefit the DOD or the federal government once the demilitarization project has concluded."

According to a press release from Barr's office in Dec. 2022, the Blue Grass Army Depot's chemical demilitarization mission employs nearly 1,450 highly skilled, highly paid workers and has contributed more than $1 billion in local payroll since 2006. The study will assess what "missions, plants, or industries" are feasible for Army or the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) needs at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) following the completion of the current destruction project.

"The study looks at unique capabilities, building footprints, sustainment costs, and the condition of our facilities, amongst other things to see what land, buildings, and infrastructure on BGCAPP might suit the dollar Department of Defense's needs moving forward," Ayvazian explained.

He said that the feasibility study is looking at 38 buildings on the depot, which belong to all three organizations that co-exist on the property: Blue Grass Army Depot, BGCAPP, and Bluegrass Chemical Activity.

"Keep in mind that all those three organizations coexist on the depot. We all report to different DoD (Department of Defense) organizations…so the feasibility study must take a holistic examination of all the buildings, facilities, and infrastructure on the depot, and communication is vital amongst all the organizations involved. So to that end, there will be life after BGCAPP at BGAD," he said.

He also revealed that the property, which reverts ownership to the Blue Grass Army Depot and the U.S. Army, is already being shown for prospective future endeavors. Also, any equipment deemed safe for reuse is evaluated to see what will be repurposed for future endeavors. Anything that is deemed safe but is not useful will be allocated via a deposition process that begins with the Army, which may still wish to keep the equipment onsite pending the results of the feasibility study.

"To that end, BGAD is hosting two industrial days on June 27 and 28 to show off our capabilities firsthand. These events will host the Department of Defense and Department of the Army organizations on one day and civilian commercial organizations on another. Many options may fit into our future," he said.

According to Ayvazian, it's projected that BGCAPP facilities will be available for reuse "in the middle of 2027."

Madison County Judge Executive Reagan Taylor said that his focus is on a "post-BGCAPP reality" and what that will do for Madison County.

"We're so grateful and thankful for the investment in our community, through the infrastructure that this program and this mission have provided, but we also have to be realistic about the outcome of once this operation is over," he asserted. "I also want to focus on keeping the Blue Grass Army Depot a part of Madison County for a long time."


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