June 24, 2008

Arkansas Destroys Last of Nerve-Agent Mines — Arsenal Once Held More Than 9,000

By Jon Gambrell

WHITE HALL, Ark. - A simple message in white paint adorned the last VX nerve-agent land mine that rolled through a conveyor belt on its way to incineration at the Pine Bluff Arsenal - "LONG TIME COMING."

With its destruction, central Arkansas became free from the danger posed by deadly nerve agents for the first time since the 1960s, when the weapons arrived at what was once the Army's second largest stockpile in the nation, some 140 miles southwest of Memphis.

Now, officials say the mustard gas remaining there poses almost no threat to those living in the surrounding 10 counties, which for years had prepared for possible evacuations if something went wrong.

"Those weapons have been eliminated and they are gone," said Mark Greer, project manager for the Army's disposal effort. "It's history. Literally, they are history."

The VX land mines, designed to explode once triggered by vehicles, contained the nerve agent in liquid form. VX interferes with the body's nervous system, causing involuntary muscle spasms, convulsions and ultimately death through asphyxiation.

The Pine Bluff Arsenal, located about 35 miles southeast of Little Rock, once held more than 9,000 of the nerve-agent-laced land mines. Friday, the last land mine rolled through the automated conveyor run at the arsenal by San Francisco-based URS Corp., the contractor hired by the Army to destroy the stockpile.

The machine removed the land mine's explosive charge and tapped the mine's VX liquid, vacuuming it out to be incinerated. The mine's metal husk later burned in a furnace at 1,000 degrees for at least 15 minutes, Greer said.

The Pine Bluff Arsenal joins the Army's Johnston Atoll arsenal, located 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, and its Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah in totally destroying its VX stock, Greer said.

However, traces of the nerve agent remain in the tanks that held the liquid until its incineration, said David Reber, URS general manager for the Pine Bluff cleanup.

Though mustard gas remains at the arsenal, it's the first time the depot has been free from "weaponized" nerve agents - those held in rockets and mines. The remaining mustard gas sits in large tanks, meaning the risk likely is contained within the arsenal's 13,000 acres, said Steve Lowrey, an executive with the Pine Bluff Chemical Activity office.

That's a change for an arsenal that once stored 3,850 tons of chemical weapons - 12 percent of the Army's entire stockpile. For years, the military's Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program had planned evacuation routes for surrounding counties.

Lowrey said officials will redraw those evacuation maps and orders in concert with state emergency management officials as the arsenal's greatest threats have been destroyed. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management said Monday she did not know how large the new radius of evacuation from the arsenal would be.

Originally published by Jon Gambrell Associated Press .

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