Global Security Newswire. Wednesday, July 7, 2010. By Chris Schneidmiller
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army announced yesterday it had eliminated 75 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical warfare materials and remained on track to meet the demilitarization deadline set by an international nonproliferation treaty (see GSN, June 21).
The Army Chemical Materials Agency is charged with destroying 28,350 tons of materials, mostly mustard blister agent and the nerve agents VX and sarin. As of July 1, it had incinerated or chemically neutralized 22,958 tons of material and destroyed more than 2.1 million munitions.
Ultimately the Army agency will be responsible for eliminating 90 percent of the total U.S. arsenal. Disposal of the remaining 10 percent of the original declared 31,500-ton U.S. stockpile falls to another Defense Department office, the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program.
The United States is required to eradicate the decades-old arsenal by April 2012 as a member state to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was one of seven nations -- alongside Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia and South Korea -- to join the pact while in possession of banned weapons agents.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors nations' compliance with the convention, "welcomes the achievement of this important milestone and the continued steady progress in the destruction of U.S. chemical weapon stockpiles," spokesman Michael Luhan said in a statement to Global Security Newswire. "This is further evidence that eliminating all chemical weapons under a strict verification regime is an attainable goal," he added.
Member nations were originally ordered to complete demilitarization operations by April 2007, but most states received extensions of up to five years. Albania, India and South Korea are now rid of their stockpiles, while work continues in Russia and the United States. The elimination process has yet to begin in Iraq and Libya.
Defense officials for years have acknowledged the United States would still be holding chemical weapons when the extended deadline arrives less than two years from now. At issue are the planned ACWA disposal sites at Pueblo, Colo., and Blue Grass, Ky., where preparations have been slowed by funding fluctuations and other setbacks.
Washington in recent years has increased funding for the program in hopes of expediting construction of the Pueblo and Blue Grass neutralization plants, which are now respectively expected to finish off their stockpiles in 2017 and 2021. Latest budget figures indicate the Pentagon intends over the next five budget years to spend on average more than $500 million annually on the effort (see GSN, May 7).
"Reaching the 75 percent mark is an important milestone on the road to elimination of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, but there are few grounds for self-congratulation or complacency," chemical-weapon expert Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, stated by e-mail. "Because of delays in building the last two CW destruction facilities at Blue Grass, Ky., and Pueblo, Colo.,, the Army does not expect to complete destruction until nine years after the April 2012 deadline specified in the CWC. Additional resources are needed to speed up the process and avoid a planned two-year hiatus during which no weapons will be destroyed."
Issue expert Paul Walker, of the environmental organization Global Green USA, also noted the "enormous costs" and "environmental and technical problems" facing disposal activities in Russia and the United States, which together held about 96 percent of the known global amounts of chemical warfare materials.
Moscow only last week acknowledged that it expected to completely dispatch its 40,000 metric tons of chemical agents three years past the deadline (see GSN, June 30).
"Both major possessor countries must continue to keep their eye on the prize -- the complete, safe, and verified demilitarization of their total stockpiles," Walker said in a press release.
The U.S. Army, though, does expect to complete its own disposal efforts before the end of next year at its four remaining incineration plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah.
"Right now it is valid to say we are highly confident of meeting 2012 for 90 percent of the U.S. stockpile," CMA spokesman Greg Mahall said during an interview today.