July 26, 2008

Lawmakers Seek Review of Depot As Latest Leak Sealed

By Greg Kocher, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Jul. 26--Three members of Kentucky's congressional delegation have asked for a review of safety measures at Blue Grass Army Depot in the wake of leaks reported earlier this month and in August 2007.

"We write to express our deep concern regarding these repeated chemical agent leaks," wrote Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, in a letter dated Thursday to Conrad Whyne, director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency.

Meanwhile, the Army said Friday that workers at the depot have sealed the container that was found to be leaking sarin nerve agent on July 11.

The leak was discovered during routine daily monitoring of a storage igloo and is "under continuous observation to evaluate the effectiveness of the seals," said Richard Sloan, spokesman for Blue Grass Chemical Activity, the chemical weapons operation at the depot.

The July 11 leak, which consisted of vapor and not liquid, originated from the same ton container from which a gallon of sarin escaped in August. The three steel ton containers that hold sarin have been deteriorating because of the corrosive nature of the chemical and the decontaminants with which it is mixed.

The August 2007 leak was the largest in depot history and prompted Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the agency responsible for destruction of the depot's chemical weapons stockpile, to adopt a plan in January to dispose of the sarin. That work was scheduled to begin in March, but it has taken longer than expected to obtain the proper permits from the state and proceed with the disposal.

"As you know the August 2007 incident was marked by several shortcomings," the congressional delegation wrote to Whyne, "such as the inability to determine if any vapor escaped into the atmosphere, the lack of information as to the precise time the leak occurred and its duration, and the failure to notify the general public in a meaningful way as to the details of the incident for approximately three months."

The congressional delegation asked the Army to:

-- "Conduct a review of all quality control/assurance measures associated with stockpile safety and surety.

-- "Undertake development of more robust communication capability between the BGCA and the public.

-- "Begin reform of the monitoring regimen currently relied on at the BGCA, preferably a regimen that involves the monitoring of each igloo more than once a week.

-- "Carry out a detailed accounting of the funds appropriated and spent in the 2004 defense appropriations bill for improved monitoring capabilities at the BGCA.

-- "Complete a detailed report identifying what actions have been undertaken over the four years to deploy upgraded airborne agent monitoring systems at BGCA as directed in 2004."

Sloan had no comment Friday on the letter because he said he had not seen it.

Craig Williams, executive director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, who had input into the letter's recommendations, was pleased by the bipartisan attention to the issue.

"I think it indicates the attention given to stockpile security in light of the activities that are going on immediately adjacent to that storage area," Williams said.

He was referring to the construction of a disposal plant next to the igloo storage area that will destroy all chemical weapons at the depot.

"If there was ever a time to make damn sure that we know what's going on in these igloos, and if something's getting out, now's that time," Williams said.

The plan to get rid of the sarin in the leaking containers, called Operation Swift Solution, was scheduled to begin in March. The operation calls for officials to bring in employees and a chemical-agent transfer system from Maryland to take the sarin from its containers to a 20-gallon on-site reactor, where it will be neutralized.

The project was estimated to cost $1.7 million and take 80 days to complete.

But it has taken longer than expected to obtain the proper permits from the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection to proceed with the disposal, officials say.

Meanwhile, the Army said Friday that workers will continue to filter the igloo involved in both leaks and monitor it daily until the containers within are neutralized and destroyed.

The first entry of the igloo earlier this month showed that the July 11 leak was vapor only, with no liquid agent present. Workers sealed not only the leaking plug with a sealant compound, but also sealed the remaining seven other plugs on the affected container.

The leak was discovered at the lowest detection levels in an igloo that is continuously filtered to ensure that potential agent vapor cannot escape to the outside atmosphere

The Army continues to observe and monitor the ton container and will not close out the incident report, Sloan said.

"If we close it out, then that's finished, and if we discover a minor leak again tomorrow, then we have to reopen and do a whole new work plan" that is submitted to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection for approval, Sloan said. That process could take time, but "if you have to do something, you prefer to do it right now," Sloan said.

"We believe that we must have the flexibility to further treat this container if conditions require," Lt. Col. David Musgrave, commander of the Blue Grass Chemical Activity, said in the release.

Blue Grass Chemical Activity was in constant communication with the Madison County Emergency Management Agency and state emergency management officials to keep them updated on the progress.


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Copyright (c) 2008, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

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