Tucked away in the restricted area of the Blue Grass Army Depot, Blue Grass Chemical Activity personnel start each workday by ensuring the chemical agent monitoring equipment used in operations is properly calibrated.
BGCA stores one of two remaining stockpiles of chemical munitions in the United States, with more than 101,000 chemical agent-filled munitions. These include M55 rockets, 155 mm projectiles and rocket warheads with the nerve agents sarin (GB) and VX as well as 155 mm projectiles with the blister agent mustard (H).
"The laboratory and monitoring team has an incredible depth and knowledge for every piece of equipment and how it all comes together," said Lt. Col. Rodney D. McCutcheon, BGCA commander. "They have passion for what they do. They know if they make mistakes, they could cause their teammates to be harmed. They don't take it lightly. They are determined to get it right every time."
One way the laboratory and monitoring division provides this protection is by monitoring the chemical weapons storage structures, known as "igloos," to see if chemical agent has been released. Igloos are monitored on a regular basis.
The process starts with chemical agent standards of GB, VX or H being diluted to the level needed to test the miniature continuous air monitoring systems, or MINICAMS, and depot area air monitoring systems. Testing ensures federal and Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection requirements are met and also protect the crew performing routine surveillance in the igloos.
The MINICAM is tested with agent standards to establish that it is properly calibrated and detecting chemical agent. During operations, equipment is tested every five hours and at the end of the workday to ensure continued monitoring effectiveness.
The air inside an igloo is tested before crews enter, and is continually monitored while they are working around munitions, protecting workers from potential vapor emissions.
"We use real-time analytical platforms, or RTAPs, equipped with gas chromatographs called MINICAMS," said Lyle H. McClure, monitoring system operator and mechanic. "They are capable of detecting extremely low levels of chemical agent within five to 14 minutes."
RTAP operators tell the chemical crews if an igloo is cleared for entry and stay on-site, monitoring the igloo the entire time the crew is working around chemical munitions. If agent is detected, the RTAP operator blows the horn three times to alert the crew to exit the igloo and shut the door. A second RTAP confirms the reading.
If a vapor release is confirmed, the crew connects a filter bank to the vent on top of the igloo. The filter pulls the contaminated air through the charcoal filters, which absorbs agent vapors to prevent them from going into the atmosphere. The crew dons appropriate personal protective equipment and conducts operations to find and isolate the problematic munition. The filters remain on until the vapor emission has been isolated and contained. Any hazardous waste generated during this process must be decontaminated and disposed of in accordance with state and federal regulations.
Bleach is one method used to decontaminate tools and equipment exposed to chemical agent during operations. The laboratory analyzes bleach stored at the activity to ensure it has enough chlorine to effectively decontaminate items.
When the decontamination procedures are complete, solid waste and residual liquids are brought to the 90-day storage area and stored in sheds designed for hazardous waste. These sheds are monitored on a regular basis to ensure no agent is detected. Laboratory technicians sample and analyze the waste to ensure no chemical agent remains. When items are cleared they are sealed, labeled and sent to a hazardous waste storage unit to await final disposal at a licensed facility.
How can one be sure the agent detection equipment is working properly and providing accurate results? The electronic mechanics work behind the scenes to ensure the MINICAMS and supporting equipment are calibrated and in good working order.
The mechanics receive training from the manufacturer on the RTAP systems, to include maintenance on MINICAMS, Onan electrical generators, hydrogen generators and nitrogen generators. They also learn the details of regulations that govern monitoring. With this intensive education, they are armed to develop preventative maintenance plans, fix mechanical problems, conduct routine maintenance, respond to equipment failures and complete peer-to-peer reviews of work done in the section.
All work is thoroughly documented, to include calibration records, preventative maintenance records, training checklists, instrument certification records and corrective actions taken.
This attention to detail captures the dedication of the laboratory and monitoring team to ensure the continued safety of the workforce, community and the environment.
"This division is at the forefront of safety," said Scott R. Justice, chemical operations deputy director. "No single thing here does as much to protect the workers, public and the environment."
This dedication has served the workforce well. For more than 70 years, depot personnel have safely and securely stored the chemical munitions. The mission will continue until the stockpile is destroyed at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, a joint venture by contractor Bechtel-Parsons.