U.S. chemical weapons destruction restarts as new facility opens in Pueblo, Colorado

The United States is scheduled to begin initial destruction operations at its eighth of nine declared chemical weapons stockpiles, in Pueblo, Colorado, on 16 March.

“This is another major step forward in building a world free of chemical weapons and leading to the total elimination of U.S. declared stockpiles in the next six to eight years,” said Dr. Paul F. Walker, director of the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Programme. “It’s also an appropriate time to do so, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first major use of chemical weapons in warfare this April.”

The U.S., one of eight countries who have declared chemical weapons stockpiles under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), was the first to begin destruction of its dangerous arsenals unilaterally in 1990. Its first destruction facility, a prototype incinerator, began operating on Johnston Atoll 750 miles west of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. had stockpiled 1,842 metric tonnes of chemical munitions there, previously deployed in Germany and Okinawa. This stockpile was destroyed by 2000, and four more incinerators and two neutralization facilities were constructed in the 1990s and after 2000 in the continental United States.

By January 2012, seven U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles had been safely burned or neutralized, totaling 25,711 metric tonnes – almost 90 per cent of its declared arsenal of 28,577 metric tonnes. The last two stockpiles at Pueblo, Colorado (2,369 MTs) and Blue Grass, Kentucky (475 MTs) were under construction at that time, but have taken several more years to complete and systematize before full-scale operations begin.

“It will be most welcome to restart the U.S. chemical weapons destruction process after a break of over three years,” Walker added. “Given that the U.S., along with Russia and Libya, have missed the legally binding deadline of 31 December, 2012 to finish destruction of their chemical weapons under the CWC, this will move the abolition process forward and help to strengthen the Convention.”

The mid-March process will involve operating an “Explosive Destruction System” (EDS), which will use a closed detonation and neutralization process to begin to destroy over-packed and leaking weapons – artillery shells, rockets and land mines – at Pueblo. Over 1,000 munitions are to be destroyed using this system. The other 780,000 weapons in the stockpile will be destroyed by a neutralization process – first mixing the deadly mustard agent with hot water and sodium hydroxide, then using a second-stage bioremediation process to detoxify the liquid effluent. This larger destruction facility is scheduled to open in late 2015 or early 2016, and the full stockpile will be eliminated by 2019. The Blue Grass facility, which is now over 85 per cent complete, is scheduled to open by 2017 and to finish its work by 2023.

Under the CWC, which entered into force in 1997, three declared chemical weapons stockpiles in Albania, India, and South Korea were destroyed by 2009. Libya completed its destruction of chemical agents in 2014, and is still working on destroying 850 MTs of precursor chemicals. Iraq still has to investigate two large bunkers containing unknown quantities of old and abandoned chemical agents. Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,308 metric tonnes of chemical agents and precursor chemicals was largely destroyed in 2014, leaving only a small percentage of its precursor chemicals. Russia, which started destroying its 40,000 metric-tonne arsenal held in seven stockpiles in 2002, has now eliminated 85 per cent of it, about 34,000 metric tonnes. Russia began operating its seventh and last destruction facility in December 2013. It is scheduled to complete the destruction of this final stockpile by 2020.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which implements and verifies the CWC in The Hague, has overseen the safe and irreversible destruction of 85 per cent of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles over the past 18 years. It will continue to do so until all declared stockpiles are fully and safely destroyed. The convention currently has 190 member countries, with Myanmar about to become the 191st State Party. The OPCW continues to push the remaining five –Angola, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan – to join in the near future.