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May 19, 2021
U.S. Chemical Demilitarization Stalls

Michael Nguyen

The United States may miss a key international deadline for destroying chemical weapons because of budget shortfalls affecting the destruction of stockpiles at two sites, the Department of Defense told lawmakers privately in January. The Defense Department is studying possible alternatives, including relocating those weapons, a proposal that has drawn fire on Capitol Hill.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the United States, the world’s second-largest holder of chemical munitions, has been granted an extension in principle until 2012 to destroy its arms. But in January, the Pentagon told Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) that their projected budget and new schedule would not allow construction to begin at sites in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, until 2011. Based on this schedule, the Pueblo and Blue Grass sites would not complete destruction operations until 2021 and 2020, respectively.

Pentagon officials attribute the delay to a tightening budget situation. The president’s fiscal year 2006 budget request includes $1.406 billion for chemical demilitarization programs across the United States, a modest increase of $32.8 million over last year.

But the funds are too limited to cover all previously planned chemical weapons destruction activities. The proposed Pentagon budget concentrates on other sites that are further along in their destruction activities to maximize the amount of chemical agents destroyed in the next seven years. The budget includes only about $31 million for the Pueblo and Blue Grass sites, well short of the expected $150-200 million necessary per site to fulfill an accelerated schedule established in the past to meet the 2012 deadline.

The two sites fall under the Defense Department’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program, which Congress established in 1997. The program seeks to develop alternative chemical weapons destruction methods at Pueblo and Blue Grass in response to concerns about the safety of incineration, the method used to destroy most of the stockpile under Army stewardship. ACWA’s proposed facilities would neutralize the chemical agents at the Pueblo and Blue Grass sites, whose combined 850,000 chemical-filled munitions account for about 10 percent of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile.

Given limited funds, the Pentagon has opted to suspend design work and construction of pilot projects at the ACWA sites. In a Dec. 21 letter, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Michael Wynne ordered the Army’s Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) to begin studying alternatives to achieving the CWC’s extended 2012 deadline for 100 percent destruction.

Possible alternatives include further delaying design work at the two sites where work has stalled; abandoning alternative destruction methods at the sites in favor of incineration; or relocating the chemical weapons to sites with operational disposal facilities. Currently, federal law prohibits the transportation of chemical weapons. CMA also is consulting with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to determine if the 2012 deadline requires that all steps in the chemical weapons destruction process be completed or whether earlier destruction stages would count toward that goal.

When asked by Arms Control Today why the Army was studying relocation despite federal law, Gregory Mahall, a CMA spokesperson said, “What we’re doing right now is a ‘what if’ drill.” However, the costs of relocating the dangerous weapons would likely be high. Last April, Dale E. Klein from the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense told a congressional subcommittee that following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Army had considered a variety of options, including transportation of the munitions, before concluding that the cost difference between relocation and the neutralization facility was “a wash.”

The CMA study has angered several lawmakers. While introducing legislation Jan. 26 to halt the study, Allard accused the Pentagon of delaying tactics, saying the Defense Department has sufficient funds to continue design work at both sites. But he said the Defense Department has balked at the cost and tried to delay progress by underfunding the program during the two previous budget cycles. Rather than spending money allotted for the ACWA sites, Allard said, the Pentagon has used the funds to cover rising costs at other sites.

During his floor speech, Allard claimed that the study is one more roadblock from the department. “I have already been told by Pentagon officials that the study is going to conclude that the transportation of chemical munitions across state lines is not practical,” Allard stated.

A bill similar to the Allard legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Congress must act quickly if it hopes to halt the study. CMA expects to deliver a final report by March 21.