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USACE: Chemical Demilitarization

 

Haas, who came to the Chem Demil program as a resident engineer in March 1999, was involved in the construction of the neutralization plant at the Newport Chemical Depot, located northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana. He said that the Newport plant was unique in that it was the only site storing “VX” nerve agent in large bulk containers and that the neutralization design modified a technique already used in nuclear weapons to create a process dubbed “Speedy Neut.”

Haas emphasized that USACE was used for its construction and design expertise. The Army Corps worked as an integrated partner with the program manager for chemical demilitarization and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program manager headquartered in Edgewood, Maryland.

Beginning in the late 1990s, USACE was not only addressing the mandates of U.S. Chem Demil through both incineration and alternative technology plants, but also began supporting the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in helping the Russians address their own chemical stockpile.

Following his work at Newport, Haas deployed overseas for a short tour before taking the director’s job in March 2005.

Beginning in the late 1990s, USACE was not only addressing the mandates of U.S. Chem Demil through both incineration and alternative technology plants, but also began supporting the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in helping the Russians address their own chemical stockpile.

“The United States government was requested by Russia about the same time the Berlin Wall fell down,” Haas explained. “And the world was worried about chemical weapons getting into ‘different’ hands.

“The Russians had seven [stockpile] locations,” he continued. “One of the plants [in] Shchuch’ye, Russia, was one of the first plants, because they believed it was the highest risk. So the United States volunteered to assist the Russians with the design and construction of that facility. That’s how the Russian project evolved.”

Design of the Shchuch’ye plant began in the late 1990s, with the United States selecting the design and construction contractor from a list of approved Russian contractors supplied by the Russian government.

pueblo chemical agent

For each disposal site, Huntsville Center staff has developed initial facility design requirements and identified appropriate equipment based on the approved destruction technology. Inside the agent processing building of the Pueblo Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant, a start-up specialist tests the cavity access machines of the Munitions Washout System. Specialized robots, also procured by Huntsville Center, transfer materials to the appropriate stations. USACE courtesy photo

Haas described the Russian process as “a combination of neutralization followed [by] bituminization,” with the agent first removed from munitions and neutralized. However, unlike the “post-treatment” processes used at the U.S. neutralization sites, the neutralized agent is then blended with an asphalt material and placed in storage bunkers on site.

Returning to his broader perspective of Chem Demil activities across USACE, Haas observed, “I guess I could say that to be involved in a mission like this is one of the very few unique things the Corps of Engineers does. I would think that I’m presently happy from an organizational standpoint and from a country standpoint that we’re getting rid of the weapons. We still have two more plants to complete operations but seven of the nine are done. Ninety percent of the weapons are done, and the last 10 percent are on their way.”

Haas also sees the program benefits as not just for the country but across USACE as well.

“A lot of people have taken the knowledge and skills that they learned in the Chem Demil program and have become very successful in other parts of the Corps,” he summarized. “You’ll never see this again at this scale and this size and in the way we put this program together. Trying to communicate that within the Corps sometimes is kind of hard, because until you live, it you can’t very well communicate it.

“I would say that the Corps should be really proud that we’ve worked ourselves out of a job here,” Ross concluded. “We had almost 200 people supporting this program in its heyday, and now we have basically ‘sunsetted’ the whole organization here, reassigning those people to other programs and jobs in the center. We are working ourselves out of a job, but the reality is that we never had anybody worried about that. They were so proud about the integrity of this mission that they never wanted off of it. It’s kind of like constructing a missile defense site. Even if it’s just one site, who doesn’t want to work on that project?”

This article first appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®: Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2016-2017 Edition.

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