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USACE: Chemical Demilitarization

 

When it comes to job satisfaction, it’s hard to compete with an organization that can claim to be removing a weapon of mass destruction from the face of the Earth. And that’s exactly the characterization offered by Boyce Ross, engineering director at the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville.

Summarizing one of many critical roles played by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), he observed, “It’s great to be able to get a class of weapons of mass destruction off the globe – in this case chemical weapons – and USACE has played a huge part as the design and construction agent in getting that done.

In addition to the incredibly efficient pollution-abatement features on the incineration facilities … USACE developed unique design features and construction processes in the development of the facility as well as the supporting infrastructure.

“Huntsville Center was the lead USACE organization, but success of the program should be attributed to the entire USACE organization,” Ross said. “The districts we partnered with throughout the program were paramount to the success at each site. The Pacific Ocean Division’s Honolulu District was invaluable in the early days of constructing the first plant on the remote island of Johnston Atoll. During the Tooele, Utah, days, Sacramento District was invaluable in helping us get a handle on what the cost of these plants was really going to be in order for them to meet U.S. environmental requirements. Baltimore, Louisville, Omaha, Little Rock, Seattle, and Mobile districts all played critical roles during design and construction of the follow-on sites.”

Ross offered a brief historical outline of the U.S. Chemical Demilitarization (Chem Demil) program, dating back to the mid-1980s, when the U.S. military addressed an aging stockpile of “unitary” chemical weapons stored around the world.

blue grass

With concrete walls 26 inches thick, the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant’s Munitions Demilitarization Building has the most complicated blast walls of the program. Designed to protect workers in the unlikely event of an explosion, the walls are made of layers upon layers of rebar and self-consolidating concrete that required seven days to cure. USACE courtesy photo 

Citing chemical mortar rounds and M55 chemical rockets, he explained, “The U.S. chemical weapons were made as military munitions, meaning there was a mortar round that actually had the chemical agent, the liquid, already in the mortar round itself. The M55 rockets already had a cavity in them filled with the liquid agent and a ‘burster’ that would detonate it on the battlefield.”

He said the biggest problem was that a “life cycle” look at weapons like the M55 rocket indicated the stabilizer in the rocket propellant was degrading over time, with an increasing risk of accidental detonation. Along with these concerns, additional international treaty conventions led to 1985’s Public Law 99-145, which included provisions for the elimination of the aging chemical stockpiles.

Following successful scale-model demonstrations, a prototype Chem Demil incineration facility was opened on Johnston Atoll, about 600 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu. The prototype facility destroyed the small percentage of the stockpile held on the atoll, as well as U.S. chemical stocks from Europe that were shipped there for destruction.

“We prototyped everything on Johnston Island [Atoll] and went through the environmental impact statement and processes,” Ross said. “The first plant that was constructed in the United States was in Tooele, Utah, and it was basically a duplicate of the Johnston Island facility, with all the main incinerator systems that Johnston Island had tested and proven.”

Highlighting the unique incineration technology used in these plants, he added, “We probably have some of the most sophisticated pollution abatement systems on those incinerator facilities that are in the United States. I’m not sure that many industries would ever go through the trouble that the Army went through – that nothing was going to get out of those plants that could harm the public. They had very elaborate pollution abatement systems, followed by [a] carbon filtration system. The air was almost cleaner coming out than going in. Long story short: Our plan was to originally clone these facilities, so we would build a facility in Tooele, Utah, then we would build the same facility in Anniston, Alabama, the next one in Umatilla, Oregon, and the next one in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.”

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...