Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Update 24

The American ship MV Cape Ray arrived in Gioia Tauro, the southern Italian port, on Tuesday 1 July. The Cape Ray received a reported 600 metric tons of Syrian chemical agents (sulphur mustard [HD] and methylphosphonyl difluoride [DF]) and materials, in a swift 12-hour transfer, from the Danish freighter MV Ark Futura on Wednesday, 2 July; these included the “Priority 1” precursors to sarin and mustard agents.  The Cape Ray has now left Gioia Tauro to “transit to international waters to neutralize the chemical agents in a safe and environmentally sound manner [via hydrolysis],” said Air Force Gen. Phillip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. European Command.  The Ark Futura will now continue to the UK to offload the remaining “Priority 1” chemicals (B, BB, and B Salt chemicals).  The third ship, Taiko, from Norway has already delivered “Priority 2” chemicals (Triethylamine, Trimethyl phosphite, Dimethyl phosphite, Monoisopropylamine, D-isopropyl aminoethanol, 2-chloroethanol, Butan-1-ol, Methanol, Hexamine, and Substance A) to Finland and is sailing to the US to deliver the remainder of its cargo (Hydrogen fluoride, Phosphorus pentafluoride, Phosphorus trichloride, Phosphorus oxychloride, and Hydrogen chloride)  to Port Arthur, Texas for incineration.  The OPCW, UN, and US have not provided exact volumes or quantities of these chemicals, but both Finland and the US appear to be receiving several hundred metric tons.

Recent concerns arose prior to the ships’ arrival in Italy, as Gioia Tauro is infamous for being a mafia stronghold. Allegations of drug trafficking, illegal arms trade, and links to corruption in the government surround the local mafia named ‘Ndrangheta. Officials addressed these concerns by stating that the port would be closed during transfer and therefore maintain that the mafia would not pose a threat to the security of the transfer. Upon arrival, the Ark Futura was escorted by Italian Coast Guard ships and a military helicopter within the port and all access roads were closed off.

Local citizens voiced apprehension of environmental contamination around Gioia Tauro and the Mediterranean during the transfer. Many cited the lack of transparency of the process—leaving most of the locals uninformed of the exact procedure that would occur in their town. Mayor Domenico Madafferi of the nearby town San Ferdinando stated “We live this situation with uncertainty and resignation because for the last four months we continued to ask for information about it but they didn’t give it.”  There has been a lack of transparency regarding the entire destruction process which the CWCC has attempted to  help facilitate through contact with the OPCW, the UN, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, and other States Parties.  While we have no doubt increased the amount of information available to the public through our blogs, conference calls, events, and press statements, we, along with many Mediterranean-basedNGOs, continue to urge government officials to provide more regular and informative updates.

Amid the concerns of security and environmental safety, the transfer occurred without incident, as evidenced in a statement issued by Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Adm. John Kirby. The Cape Ray has set off into international waters and once it is sufficiently far out of territorial waters, the hydrolysis process will begin. As mentioned previously, workers will first undertake five days of sea trials in the Mediterranean, and will then start the hydrolysis process slowly (sometimes described as “crawl, walk, run”) in order to further test the Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems on board the Cape Ray.  Although these two identical neutralization systems were tested with simulants at Aberdeen, Maryland where they were built, and also went through sea trials off the coast of Virginia late last year, this careful approach could also delay first-stage destruction a few weeks.  Once it is begun, the destruction process should take between 60 and 90 days to complete on the Cape Ray.

Secretary of Defense Hagel has stated he is “is grateful to Danish and Italian authorities for their support in this process and is enormously proud of everyone who helped make possible this safe and incident-free transfer. He extends a special thanks to the men and women of the Cape Ray, Naval Forces Europe, and U.S. European Command teams for their impeccable planning and execution.”

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