July 26, 2008

Local Lawmakers Are Concerned: Depot Agent Monitoring

By Ronica Shannon, Richmond Register, Ky.

Jul. 26--Both of Kentucky's Republican U.S. senators and Rep. Ben Chandler, D-6th District, put party affiliations aside Thursday out of concern of recent nerve agent detections at the Blue Grass Army Depot.

Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and Chandler sent a letter Thursday to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency Director Conrad Whyne about frequent nerve agent detections earlier this month and last August.

The inability to determine if vapor was released into the atmosphere, failing to report the time and duration of the leak and failing to alert local media outlets were the main concerns from the August 2007 incident.

News of vapor leaks from the same ton container of GB (Sarin) nerve agent surfaced again July 11 when detected inside a storage igloo during a routine monitoring round.

The igloo contains three GB ton containers and several secondary waste drums. GB agent is a colorless liquid that can be inhaled or ingested.

The Army continues to observe and monitor the ton containers, according to a Blue Grass Chemical Activity (BGCA).

"We believe that we must have the flexibility to further treat this container if conditions require," said Lt. David Musgrave, BGCA commander.

Toxic chemical workers have sealed not only the leaking plug with a sealant compound, but also sealed the remaining seven other plugs.

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.

"To close out this leaker incident before we are absolutely certain that it is corrected would not only limit my options under Kentucky State Law, but would violate my personal goal of providing the best possible safety for the community and the environment," Musgrave said.

The letter to Whyne was not criticizing current monitoring methods, but rather bring a few more concerns to light.

"While we appreciate the efforts under way to ensure the safe storage of these weapons and their contents while awaiting completion of the demilitarization site, it is important that all possible steps be taken to prevent harm to the Chemical Activity work force, Blue Grass Army Depot employees and the general public," the letter states.

About one gallon of GB nerve agent was spilled inside a storage igloo in August 2007. News reports alleged the spill was the largest leak in the depot's history.

The letter contains several suggestions to help ensure their concerns are addressed, including: Conduct a review of all quality control and safety measures taken in stockpile monitoring; increase communication between the BGCA and the general public; increase the frequency of igloo monitoring rounds; and create a detailed accounting of appropriated funds spent in the 2004 defense appropriations bill to improve monitoring capabilities.

"I'm pleased with the bipartisan interest that's been shown in regards to this issue," said Craig Williams, director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group. The organization has a history of being a watchdog during the weapons destruction process so that it is done by means that are safe and environmentally sound.

"Although the July 11 agent detection was reportedly contained within engineering controls, we recognize that this may not have been the case during the August 2007 incident and that advanced monitoring capabilities could have played an important role in either making this determination of indeed preventing such a release into the environment," the letter states.

In every case, BGCA laboratory technicians using more sensitive equipment requiring more time for detection have determined that these initial readings were at the non-detectable level.

McConnell, Bunning and Chandler also reminded Whyne that they acknowledge and appreciate the many challenges faced in maintaining safe storage of the chemical weapons and offer their assistance "in any way possible to increase the level of protection bring provided."


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