The Final Push for U.S. Chemical Weapons...
Volume 14, Issue 4, March 14, 2022
For more than a century, chemical weapons have been recognized as one of the most horrific, inhumane, and militarily dubious instruments of war. These realities led to nearly universal support for the ratification and entry into force of the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC), including support from Russia and the United States—which were at that time the possessors of the world’s two largest chemical weapon arsenals. Negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the CWC prohibits all signatories from developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, or retaining chemical weapons. It also bans the direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons, and the assisting, encouraging, or inducing of other states to engage in CWC-prohibited activity. Since its ratification, the main mission of the CWC has been the verified and irreversible destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles. When the United States ratified the CWC on April 25th, 1997, it accepted the treaty mandate to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile and related facilities completely and verifiably by April 29, 2007, with the possibility of a five-year extension until 2012.
But both the 2007 and 2012 deadlines proved to be severe underestimates of the time and effort needed to safely demilitarize all nine declared U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles. The United States requested and received two additional deadline extensions from the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Now, the United States is pushing hard to finish destroying the last vestiges of its once-massive Cold War-era chemical weapons stockpile by Sept. 30, 2023.
Current Status of the U.S. Chemical Demilitarization Effort
Despite the delays in its campaign to eliminate chemical weapons, the United States has achieved tremendous progress toward the destruction of its massive and highly toxic chemical weapons arsenal. According to the OPCW’s annual report for 2022, the OPCW confirmed that the United States has verifiably destroyed a total of 26,606.252 metric tons of priority Category 1 chemical weapons, which is 95.81% of the total U.S. declared stockpile. The United States has destroyed all of its Category 2 chemical weapons, such as phosgene, and Category 3 weapons, including unfilled munitions, devices, and equipment designed specifically to employ chemical weapons. As of March 2022, 418.4 metric tons of mustard agent remain at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado and just under 300 metric tons of VX nerve agent are left to be destroyed at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky. With only a year and a half left to finish its chemical weapons demilitarization mission - an effort started nearly 40 years ago – the United States government must commit the necessary resources and funding to ensure it meets its treaty-mandated deadline of Sept. 30, 2023.
Congressional authorization of sufficient funding for chemical agents and munitions destruction this year will help ensure the work is done on time and according to stringent safety and environmental standards. Congress and the Biden administration must prioritize finally finishing destruction activities to maintain our standing as a dependable and influential member of the international disarmament community. The Fiscal Year 2022 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, introduced to the House in July 2021, set aside $1,094,352,000 for the Army to make the final push in the chemical agents and munitions destruction mission. Of the total amount proposed, $995,011,000 is designated for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program, the Army organization that oversees operations at the last two U.S. chemical weapons destruction facilities in Colorado and Kentucky. The remaining sum is distributed amongst operations/maintenance and the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP). By the end of this fiscal year, the United States will have spent more than $41.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) since 1986 on chemical weapons stockpile elimination efforts.
Why It Is Vital to Meet the 2023 Deadline
As a leader in upholding the norm against the possession and use of chemical weapons, the United States owes it to our international partners, and our local communities, to demonstrate our commitment to ridding the world of these inhumane weapons once and for all by meeting the 2023 stockpile elimination deadline. U.S. credibility and leadership are on the line. Countries such as Russia and Iran have attempted to use the United States missed chemical weapons destruction deadlines to discredit U.S. commitment to the CWC, at a critical time in which the United States seeks to have a leadership role in holding countries like Syria and Russia accountable for their failure to comply with the CWC. During a June 30, 2021, public meeting of the Colorado Citizens’ Advisory Commission, U.S. National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention and acting Deputy Secretary Assistant at the State Department, Laura Gross, emphasized the diplomatic importance of completing stockpile elimination. “From our perspective at the State Department, we want to be able to […] demonstrate the commitment that the United States has against the use of chemical weapons,” Gross said. “That’s why it’s so important to be able to maintain that commitment to the timeline […] because we have adversaries in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria, who are using or developing chemical weapons for potential use, and we really want to be working at the OPCW to deter them.”
“We don’t want these countries to have the opportunity to use potential delays against us,” Gross added later in the meeting. Domestically, the U.S. government owes it to the communities surrounding chemical weapons stockpiles and destruction facilities to finally finish eliminating these dangerous weapons. For well over 50 years, at least 9 states have had to deal with the health and environmental risks that come with the storage and destruction of chemical munitions and agents.
While U.S. President Joe Biden has not publicly commented on the importance of meeting the 2023 deadline, other government officials including Dr. Brandi Vann, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense, and the newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Reduction and Arms Control, Kingston Reif, have reiterated the United States’ commitment to meeting the deadline.
History of the U.S. Chemical Weapons Demilitarization
Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union amassed enormous stockpiles of these dangerous weapons: by 1990, the United States had 31,500 U.S. tons (63,000,000 pounds) of chemical agents, and the Soviet Union had 39,967 metric tons (88,112,152 pounds). Highly toxic nerve agents, such as sarin, are lethal at as little as 100 mg. The United States’ effort to eliminate its massive chemical weapons arsenal began before the end of the Cold War and well before the entry into force of the CWC in 1997. In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-145, which called for the safe destruction of the United States’ stockpile of nonbinary lethal chemical agents and related facilities by Sept. 30, 1994. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Russia and the United States held several rounds of talks on chemical weapons disarmament and signed the 1990 Bilateral Destruction Agreement. However, faced with internal funding issues, Russia did not begin stockpile destruction efforts until 2000.9 The 1986 Congressional decision to begin stockpile destruction without reciprocal action by Russia demonstrated early on the United States’ commitment to chemical weapons disarmament.
Under this new congressional mandate, the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC) (which was later renamed Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) in 1992) began construction of the Johnston Atoll prototype high-temperature incineration facility in 1988. Originally, the Army planned to build three centralized incinerators at 3 chemical weapons stockpile depots – one on Johnston Atoll, one in Utah, and one in either Alabama or Arkansas – and transport chemical weapons from the other 6 stockpile locations for destruction. However, the transport of these dangerous weapons was highly contentious and was later outright banned by Congress (50 U.S. Code 1512a, 1994). Instead of three centralized incinerators, the Army announced in 1988 that it would build 8 disposal facilities at each of the 8 chemical munition storage sites on the continental United States.11,12 In September of that same year, Congress extended the deadline to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile to April 30, 1997, as the new approach was going to take far more time, planning, and resources. After multiple mechanical problems and several rounds of testing, the Johnston Atoll facility began burning agents in 1990 that had been previously stored by the U.S. military in Okinawa and Germany. These chemical munitions had been secretly relocated to Johnston Atoll in the 70s and 90s respectively.14 Construction for the second incineration facility began in Tooele, Utah in 1989. As the U.S. chemical weapons demilitarization process got underway, civil society organizations including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as Native American communities and local grassroots organizations, were actively researching and raising serious concerns about the impact of incineration of chemical warfare agents on the environment and the health of local communities.
The U.S. Army released a draft environmental impact statement in 1990 that concluded the incineration process would have a minimal environmental impact, and the commander of the U.S. demilitarization program, Colonel Walter Busbee, said that fears about pollution were overblown. Despite the promises from the Army, sites for incineration facilities were beset by litigation and protests over environmental and public health concerns regarding the danger of potential leakages and emissions during incineration. The Environmental Protection Agency fined the Army for a nerve agent stack release in March 1994, a group of civil society organizations sued the Army in June 2000 over the potential release of MC-1 Sarin nerve gas during the processing of a bomb, and the Pine Bluff citizens’ group filed an appeal with the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in September 2000 over whether future emissions would constitute as “pollution” under Arkansas law.
Throughout the 1990s, citizen activists and non-governmental research organizations continued to press the government to investigate and pursue alternatives to incineration. Preceding the construction of each U.S. incineration destruction facility were lengthy public hearings and environmental impact reports. As early as June 1990, the U.S. Army confirmed that it expected to miss the 1997 deadline set by Congress. A GAO report attributed the expected delay to “(a) stringent environmental regulation of the operation of the first U.S. continental incineration plant, (b) program budget cuts, and (c) operational delays in testing the first disposal plant on Johnston Atoll.” By 1991, Congress pushed back the deadline for U.S. chemical weapons stockpile elimination further. During a December 1991 testimony in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Susan Livingstone, said, “I wish to state candidly that schedule will not be a primary driver for this program. We have always stated that safety is the paramount consideration in making decisions for this program.”17 Construction of additional incineration facilities began in Anniston, Alabama in 1991, Umatilla, Oregon in 1996, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 2002.
The concerns of communities surrounding chemical weapons destruction sites were echoed by key members of Congress. As part of the Senate resolution on advice and consent for ratification of the CWC, policymakers included a set of conditions, including a mandate that the president and the Army explore alternative, non-incineration technologies for the destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile “to ensure that the United States has the safest, most effective and environmentally sound plans for programs for meeting its obligations under the Convention for the destruction of chemical weapons.”
Per the Congressional conditions, the U.S. Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment (ACWA) program was established to investigate and test alternative methods to baseline incineration to dispose of chemical weapons. In 2001, the Army announced that six alternative technologies for chemical weapons destruction had been identified and tested, with neutralization/biotreatment and neutralization/supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) progressing to the engineer design phase.
The CWC required the United States to destroy its remaining 27,200 metric tons of chemical warfare agents within 10 years.20 However, due to delays attributed to the search for environmentally preferred alternatives to incineration, the treaty-mandated destruction deadline was pushed back from April 29, 2007, to April 29, 2012, with the approval of the other CWC States Parties.
While asking for the United States’ first deadline extension request, former U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Eric Javits, explained that the U.S. would be unable to meet the 2007 deadline due to setbacks and delays caused by difficulties in constructing facilities, obtaining permits, and addressing safety and environmental concerns. He candidly noted that the United States was asking for the April 2012 deadline “as our extended deadline because that is the latest date the treaty allows us to ask for,” but that “based on our current projections, we do not expect to be able to meet that deadline.”
In addition to the five incineration facilities, the U.S. Army CMA constructed and operated two neutralization facilities in Edgewood, Maryland and Newport, Indiana. Those two sites finished operations in 2007 and 2010 respectively. The Maryland bulk mustard agent storage site, located outdoors with limited protection, was expedited primarily due to security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While the U.S. Army CMA was responsible for the first seven stockpile destruction facilities, the last two remaining chemical weapons destruction facilities, located in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, are overseen by the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA). Both sites feature alternative destruction processes to incineration.
At the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (PCAPP), most of the mustard projectiles stored there are being destroyed in a two-step process: neutralization followed by biotreatment. Three Static Detonation Chambers (SDCs) are also being employed to destroy “problematic munitions,” including the stockpile of 4.2-inch mortar rounds.
At the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP), the majority of the nerve agents (including GB/Sarin and VX) are being destroyed through neutralization. Like the PCAPP process, several “problematic” munitions, mainly 155mm mustard projectiles, were destroyed by SDCs. The site’s remaining M55 rockets are also slated to be destroyed by the SDCs.
The Final Push to Eliminate What Remains
As of March 4, 2022, the United States has 418.4 metric tons of mustard in 105mm projectiles and mustard 4.2-inch mortar rounds left at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado. There are 296.6 metric tons of VX nerve agent in M55 rockets and GB nerve agent in M55 rockets left to destroy at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky.
Walton Levi, site manager for the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, confirmed that the facility is still on target to meet the September 2023 deadline in a recent interview with KUNC.22
Crews at the two remaining facilities have continued to work diligently throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and their dedication to helping the United States meet its treaty mandated deadline in such uncertain circumstances is truly commendable.
Following a public comment and testing period, the Pueblo, Colorado facility was granted an environmental permit to use Static Detonation Chambers to finish eliminating the remaining mustard munitions.
CWC Outlier States
The completion of the long campaign to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons arsenal will also put more pressure on the remaining CWC hold-out states to join and meet their commitments.
Four countries remain outside the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. North Korea is estimated to possess a stockpile of approximately 5,000 metric tons of agent. The status of Taiwan, prohibited from joining all multilateral treaties by China, must also be resolved, especially given its large chemical industry. Syria, which joined the CWC in 2013 under intense international pressure and agreed to the elimination of the bulk of its former stockpile of some 1,300 metric tons of prohibited chemical agents, has failed to provide a full accounting of its stockpiles to the OPCW.
Russia—which once possessed the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpile consisting of approximately 40,000 metric tons of chemical agent, including VX, sarin, soman, mustard, lewisite, mustard-lewisite mixtures, and phosgene—officially completed the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal in 2017.
Like the United States, Russia received an extension of the original chemical weapons destruction deadline when it was unable to complete the task by the 2012 deadline set by the CWC. Russia’s destruction program benefited from technical assistance and funding through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Finally, the OPCW announced Sept. 27, 2017 that Russia completed the destruction of its declared chemical weapons stockpile.
However, Russia still retains some chemical weapons capacity. In March 2018, Russia used the advanced chemical agent Novichok to assassinate a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the UK. In a 2021 State Department report on compliance with the CWC, the United States accused Russia of non-compliance with the CWC for its alleged use of Novichok. The report also noted that “The United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations" under the Convention and asserted that Russia had not made a complete declaration of its stockpile.
As we enter the final year and a half of demilitarization efforts, the United States government must recommit to prioritizing its chemical weapons stockpile elimination efforts, while, at the same time, continuing to protect the security and safety of local communities. The active involvement of local communities, state regulators and authorities, environmental and public health experts and activities, and other interested stakeholders has been an excellent example of democratic and transparent decision-making. Leaders in Washington, D.C. must provide the leadership and support necessary to meet international treaty commitments and maintain the United States’ standing as a responsible and influential leader in the global disarmament community.
When the United States does eliminate the last of its deadly chemical weapons, it will be a critical step in strengthening the taboo against chemical weapons and a strong boost for the CWC and the OPCW at a critical juncture in the long fight against these inhumane weapons.