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Workers Try to Find Source of Depot Leak

July 30, 2008

By Ronica Shannon, Richmond Register, Ky.

Jul. 30–A storage igloo at the Blue Grass Army Depot recently tested positive for mustard gas vapors, and toxic chemical workers are still trying to determine the source, an Army representative said Tuesday.

This leak — confirmed Monday — is faint and presents no danger to the community or the environment, said Dick Sloan, public information officer for Blue Grass Chemical Activity.

The vapor amount was within the short term exposure limit (STEL), which is a level so low that an unprotected worker could be in the area for eight hours without experiencing any ill effects, Sloan said.

Workers detected the vapor during a weekly monitoring round.

The detection of low-level vapor is the first confirmed detection of mustard gas (or H-agent) since August 7, 2005.

There are “several thousand” mustard-filled projectiles inside the igloo where the vapor was detected, Sloan said.

Toxic chemical workers are now in the process of making physical inspections of the artilleries inside the igloo to locate the source of the leak.

This process could take weeks, Sloan said.

“If there are no visual clues, which is normally the case, then the workers find the leaking projectile by process of elimination,” Sloan said. “The projectiles are stacked in pallets in the igloo. The workers place plastic sheeting over each stack of pallets, wait, they sample the air under each pallet stack.”

Normally that will narrow the field down to one stack, he said.

That stack is broken down into smaller stacks, covered with plastic sheeting and the air under each is sampled once again.

“This is done until the workers are down to one pallet,” Sloan said. “At that point, a detailed visual inspection is done, and each of the projectiles can be wiped with a special paper, much like litmus paper, which changes color when exposed to agent.”

The igloo will remain under continuous filtration to ensure that any agent vapor within the igloo cannot escape to the outside atmosphere. State and county officials, as well as the public, will be updated consistent with existing agreements to ensure transparency, Sloan said.

Mustard gas (or Agent H) is an odorless, oily liquid that can take up to 12 hours to cause side effects. Exposure to the gas eventually results in severe to fatal respiratory damage.

Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and Rep. Ben Chandler sent a letter to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency Director Conrad Whyne last week 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).

Operation Swift Solution, an effort to destroy the three ton containers being stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot, is ongoing.

A Chemical Agent Transfer System (CHATS) will be used to destroy the 157 gallons of toxic chemical mixture being stored in three stainless steel containers.

Operation Swift Solution will cost about $2 million, according to Army personnel.

Ronica Shannon can be reached at rshannon@richmondregister.com or 623-1669, Ext. 234.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Richmond Register, Ky.

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