Saturday, September 17, 2016

45 Miles Away: Army To Get Rid Of 2,600 Tons Of Mustard Agent

In this Jan. 29, 2015 photo, ordinance technicians use machines to to process inert simulated chemical munitions used for training at the Pueblo Chemical Depot, east of Pueblo, in southern Colorado. The United States is about to begin destroying its largest remaining stockpile of chemical-laden artillery shells, a milestone in the global campaign to eradicate a debilitating weapon that still creeps into modern wars.
Engineers prepare to get rid of more canisters with mustard agent

Barely 45 miles south of us lies the town of Pueblo, and nearby the Pueblo Chemical Depot.  This Depot contains more than 780,000 projectiles, many laden with a total of 2,611 tons of mustard agent - the stuff used to produce mustard gas.  This nasty crap can maim or kill by damaging skin and ravaging eyes and lungs.   Next week, the Army plans to begin operating a new $4.5 b plant (the Pueblo Chemical Agent Disposal Plant)   to destroy the country's largest remaining stockpile of mustard agent, to comply with an international treaty that bans chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, those of us living north of Pueblo are hoping everything goes just fine, no hitches, glitches or accidents. As per a Denver Post report several days ago, we're informed there are about 780,000 chemical -filled shells, which have remained in the area since at least the mid -1940s and the end of World War II.  By 1952, the Army began storing mustard agent in Pueblo, after being hauled from a manufacturing plant - the Rocky Mountain Arsenal - northeast of Denver. Over 35 years at least 90 leaks have been detected and dealt with. Over 200 Army guards have been posted at the site to maintain security.

The new plant itself is designed to be largely automated with robots - not humans - to be used in the actual dismantling of the shells . At full capacity the facility will be able to destroy 500 shells per day, so the project is expected to be completed by 2020.  Thus far, 580 shells and bottles of mustard agent have been destroyed mainly ones that were leaking.   They were placed in a sealed container, torn open with explosive charges then neutralized with chemicals. The way the process works only four to six shells can be destroyed per day.

Five of the  12 -foot tall yellow robots (run by workers at keyboards)  open the projectiles packed with liquid mustard agent - which freezes at 56 F. The robots then unscrew and remove caps on each projectile, drain the liquid into titanium containers. Later the robots inject 190 F water and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) after which bacteria is used to eat the residual chemicals,
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Worker at Pueblo Chemical Depot getting outfitted for mustard agent disposal
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Workers adjust monitoring equipment - to detect leaks.

Originally, the Republican-controlled congress in 1996 wanted to use incineration to get rid of the stuff. But then it was realized if any incompletely combusted mustard agent diffused into the atmosphere it might not exactly be the best thing.  Especially with two large population centers (Pueblo, Colorado Springs) not that far away.

So, the plan was altered to a more technical one involving low temperature, low pressure systems that first neutralize the chemicals and then unleash bacteria from sludge (imported from Pueblo's wastewater treatment plant) to eat the weapons' contents out of existence.   At the end, hopefully, no liquid waste will remain and a 'salt cake' sludge from filters will be hauled to a hazardous waste landfill. The residual emissions will be carefully filtered using a black stack above the facility.

A 1997 international treaty ordered eradication of all chemical weapons, outlawed since 1925, and the U.S. as an original signatory is obligated to comply. Foreign observers have been posted at the Pueblo, CO plant to verify destruction of the weapons.  In recent years, concerns over the deals intensified amidst cybersecurity threats and evidence that Islamic State and Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, including mustard gas.

Alas, full bore destruction of the mustard agent can't begin until officials issue a permit - expected in January.  Meanwhile, as of Wednesday, 80 projectiles have been dismantled at the Pueblo Chemical Depot.  All this paves the way for the full on disposal to be done at the Pueblo Chemical Agent Disposal Plant, which the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has already inspected to ensure safety.

The critical pilot testing is being done under a research, development and demonstration permit, according to CDPHE spokeswoman Jeanine Natterman, quoted in the Denver Post (Sept. 15, p. 6A). She added:

"The CDPHE does not believe the Pueblo Chemical Agent Disposal Plant will have a significant impact on air quality. The plant is considered only a minor source by the air pollution control division"

However, those in the vicinity can only hope that the CDPHE has more credibility than the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission in its claims for minimal fracking impacts. Many Coloradans are happy for the plant to open as it means employment for at least 2,000 - making it one of the largest employers in the state.  New jobs are expected to pay $40,000- $70,000 per year with health benefits.

Fortunately, the mustard agent cartridges are buried in "igloos" on a 35 square mile tract of land at the Pueblo Chemical Depot. We have to hope they are sufficiently protected from any would be terrorists - including domestic - out to make a statement, including "warming up the gas chambers".

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