Local Features
12:16 am
Fri January 9, 2009

The Wrong Horse

Richmond, KY – GIVEN THEIR AFFECTION FOR THOROUGHBREDS, KENTUCKIANS ARE PRETTY GOOD AT PICKING HORSES. BUT, GIVEN THE CURRENT TROUBLES AT THE BLUEGRASS ARMY DEPOT, IT'S POSSIBLE KENTUCKY BACKED THE WRONG HORSE

THE DEPOT IS VERY MUCH IN A RACE .ACTUALLY, IT'S IN A COUPLE RACES. UNDER AN INTERNATIONAL TREATY, IT HAS JUST FOUR MORE YEARS TO DESTROY ITS CHEMICAL WEAPONS. MORE PRESSING, AS THE AGING WARHEADS AND ROCKETS DETERIORATE, THE RISK OF A SERIOUS ACCIDENT INCREASES.

LIKE THE BLUEGRASS ARMY DEPOT'S NEIGHBORS, THE 16-THOUSAND RESIDENTS OF HERMISTON, OREGON LIVE ALONGSIDE SOME OF THE WORLD'S NASTIEST WEAPONRY INCLUDING SARIN NERVE GAS. BUT, LIFE NOW IN NORTHEAST OREGON, ACCORDING TO FORMER HERMISTON MAYOR FRANK HARKENRIDER, IS A BIT SAFER

"The worst part, the worst part of the nerve agent that you want to know about has been destroyed. It's all gone."

HARKENRIDER ADDS, IT WAS INCINERATED THIS FALL WITHOUT INCIDENT. SUCH INCINERATORS ARE ALSO AT WORK IN TOOELE, UTAH AND ANNISTON, ALABAMA .WHERE OVER HALF OF THE MUNITIONS ARE DESTROYED. THE INCINERATOR AT PINE BLUFF, ARKANSAS IS ONE-FIFTH FINISHED. AND, THE VERY FIRST PURPOSE-BUILT CHEMICAL WEAPONS INCINERATOR, WHICH WAS BUILT ON A PACIFIC ISLAND HAS COMPLETED WORK AND HAS BEEN DEMOLISHED.

SO, FORMER BEREA MAYOR CLIFFORD KERBY, WHO SERVED IN THE 1980s ON A CITIZENS PANEL WHICH CONSIDERED THE DEPOT'S DISPOSAL OPTIONS, BELIEVES KENTUCKY FELL BEHIND IN ITS RACE WHEN INCINERATION WAS REJECTED.

"We know it works uhhh .the system they're looking at now, it may work, we don't know. And it's never been used or proven in bulk destruction of this stuff. So it will be an experiment in our own back yard."

IN FACT, ON A SMALL SCALE AT LEAST, THE METHOD KNOWN AS CHEMICAL NEUTRALIZATION IS PROVEN. IT ELIMINATED WEAPONS STORED IN NEWPORT, INDIANA AND ABERDEEN, MARYLAND. BUT, KERBY CALLS THOSE SMALL OPERATIONS. HE SAYS THE CLEAN-UP AT THE BLUEGRASS ARMY DEPOT IS A MUCH LARGER, MORE COMPLEX OPERATION.

PROCESSING FACILITIES WHICH USE CHEMICALS TO NEUTRALIZE WEAPONS ARE UNDER CONSTRUCTION IN KENTUCKY AND COLORADO. PROGRESS, HOWEVER, IS SLOW. FEDERAL FUNDING HAS BEEN INCONSISTENT. PLUS, UNLIKE INCINERATION, CHEMICAL NEUTRALIZATION IS A BRAND-NEW TECHNOLOGY. ESSENTIAL PARTS OF THE FACILITY REMAIN ON THE DRAWING BOARD. KEVIN FLAMM IS THE U-S ARMY'S PROJECT MANAGER

"Both Kentucky and Colorado will be pilot facilities and they'll be going through the same, you know, learning curve that the incineration sites went though when we first started J-CADS in Toelle but again we have engineering controls in place to ensure that those start-up, that those baby steps within the operation are in a very safe, environmentally sound manner."

FLAMM PREDICTS DESIGNERS WILL FINISH WORK THIS SPRING, BUT THE WARHEADS ARE NOT WAITING. ON AVERAGE, FIVE LEAKING WEAPONS ARE DISCOVERED EACH YEAR. THEIR GROWING NUMBERS PROMPTED EMERGENCY ACTION.

THIS FALL, A PORTABLE PROCESSING FACILITY WAS BROUGHT TO KENTUCKY. IT ALSO USES CHEMICALS TO NEUTRALIZE THE LEAKERS. BUT, IT'S CREATING NEW PROBLEMS THE RESULTING WASTE IS HAZARDOUS .AND MUST GO TO TEXAS THIS WINTER FOR PROCESSING.

A MEETING IN EARLY DECEMBER OF THE CHEMICAL WEAPONS WORKING GROUP CONSIDERED THE DEPOT'S PROBLEMS.

THE WORKING GROUP STRONGLY OPPOSES INCINERATION. WHILE IT SEEMS SUCCESSFUL AT OTHER SITES, WILLAMS SAYS, THERE MAY BE HEALTH IMPACTS WE JUST DON'T KNOW ABOUT YET.

"There's been no body bags that we can account for. Um, there have been 18 documented releases of live agent out the stack that we can document. My guess is there have been dozens if not hundreds more."

IF ANYTHING, WILLIAMS ARGUES, KENTUCKY'S CHOICE OF CHEMICAL NEUTRALIZATION ACCELERATED THE CLEAN-UP. HE SAYS THE COMMONWEALTH TOOK JUST TWO YEARS TO PERMIT THE PLANT THE AVERAGE FOR AN INCINERATOR IS SEVEN YEARS. SO, WILLIAMS SAYS A SWITCH TO INCINERATION WOULD BE DANGEROUS AND TIME CONSUMING.

"They'd have to go back and redesign the incinerator because they learned so many lessons from the four that are out there, that they would never repeat them. So, they'd have to go back start really from ground zero. And all of that time and design change and all of that stuff plus all of the permitting time and so on and so forth, it would be astronomical and we would never get done. So, that's just a ludicrous, you know, position for people to be still saying at this stage of the game."

BUT, ACCORDING TO CLIFF KERBY, IT'S NOT TOO LATE. IF THE COMMONWEALTH HAD INITIALLY BACKED INCINERATION, HE BELIEVES, THE ARMY WOULD HAVE ACCELERATED WORK. THE COMMONWEALTH, HE ADDS, CAN STILL CHANGE ITS BET

"Seeing the results of other places with incinerators, I would definitely say I would pick incineration and get started building an incinerator."

TO KERBY, DELAYS AT THE BLUEGRASS ARMY DEPOT NOW MAKE A SERIOUS ACCIDENT SEEM INEVITABLE.

MAYOR FRANK HARKENRIDER HAS EITHER LIVED ALONGSIDE OR WORKED WITH ARMY MUNITIONS ALL HIS LIFE. AS A TEEN-AGER, HARKENRIDER STACKED BOMBS AT THE UMATILLA ARMY DEPOT. WHEN WORKING INSIDE THE EARTHEN IGLOOS WHERE WEAPONS ARE STORED, THE 82 YEAR-OLD WARNS, A MOMENT OF INATTENTION CAN KILL

"The only accident they ever had was when an igloo blew up and that was back in 1940 .oh, I don't know what year it was, 44 or something. An igloo blew up by accident .killed six people, but that was a forklift hit a bomb or somethin."

ACCORDING TO GOVERNMENT PROJECTIONS IT WILL TAKE AT LEAST EIGHT MORE YEARS TO PROCESS ALL ITS CHEMICAL WEAPONS .LEAVING PLENTY OF TIME FOR KENTUCKY TO LOSE THE RACE