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USACE: Chemical Demilitarization


Ross would go on to manage the site at Pine Bluff Arsenal through construction. It would destroy more than 120,000 M55 rockets.

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

“There are all different facets of the facility that are defined by the environmental permit, [from] containment of any kind of liquid to what do you do with the waste in some of the processing rooms,” he said. “We used very high, almost nuclear standards, on the piping systems and the pumps that feed all of this liquid nerve agent into incinerators and process equipment. It was very complex construction.”

USACE experience on the program also included development of new construction approaches.

blue grass facility

The Blue Grass facility being constructed. U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, photo

“Some great technologies were developed,” Ross said. “At the Blue Grass site, for example, we ended up using and developing what we called ‘flowable concrete’ to do the blast containment areas, just because of how congested those containment rooms are. The containment rooms are somewhat similar to what goes around the core of a nuclear reactor. They are designed to contain whatever possible detonation could happen inside that room and not even let vapor escape. They’re massive concrete structures, and it was the first time that the U.S. Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board really has seen that type of concrete used on one of their facilities.

“That’s probably one of the things that evolved out of the Chem Demil program that we will continue to use in the future,” he added.

Ross noted that one of the early incineration plant concepts was that these plants were to return to “green grass sites” following their destruction missions.

“I think if you went out to Johnston Island right now you would see that it’s back to coral,” he said. “They stripped the buildings down and turned it into a bird sanctuary. The facility in Anniston, Alabama, and the one in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, are also literally back to green grass. When you can get rid of a weapon of mass destruction like chemical weapons, and do it without harming the environment, do it while ensuring the integrity of public safety, and [do] it without harming workers – I can’t really think of a bigger feather to put in the Corps of Engineers’ cap.”

… 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.”

Although early program plans had envisioned the use of incineration at all of the storage sites, environmental push-back in some communities eventually led to the exploration and adoption of “alternate technologies,” featuring some combination of chemical neutralization and post-treatment, at the remaining four storage locations: Newport, Indiana; Aberdeen, Maryland; Pueblo, Colorado; and Richmond, Kentucky.

“If you make an agent by chemistry, you can destroy it by chemistry,” asserted Pat Haas, who was director of the former Chemical Demilitarization Directorate at the Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville.

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