By Lieutenant Colonel Rodney McCutcheon and Ms. Angela MessingerJanuary 8, 2020
The Blue Grass Army Depot (BGAD) military community recently celebrated the initial destruction of chemical weapons stored at the facility, located near Richmond, Kentucky. Chemical weapons demilitarization operations began at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) this past summer with the safe and successful transport and destruction of mustard-filled munitions--the result of a strong partnership between BGAD, and BGCAPP, and the Blue Grass Chemical Activity (BGCA). "We are now in the execution phase of demilitarization," said Mr. James L. Hall, BGCA deputy commander. "We have a list of priorities and a shared vision with our mission partners to meet the chemical destruction requirements established by the Department of Defense," he added.
The Army began shipping chemical weapons to the newly established BGAD in 1944. Throughout the following 2 decades, 523 tons of mustard and nerve agent contained in rockets and projectiles were stockpiled there.
In 1995, BGCA was created to take over the chemical storage mission from the depot. In 2002, the organization now known as the Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives was assigned responsibility for the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpiles in Kentucky and Colorado. Each of the participating organizations has worked diligently to meet the nation's commitment to destroy chemical weapon stockpiles by the end of 2023. "The key leaders in these organizations have developed a team of trust that engages in open and transparent dialogue," Mr. Hall said, "They have created an environment that encourages increased communications, which has resulted in improved procedures and operations."
One challenge in preparing for chemical weapons destruction has been bringing key stakeholders together to synchronize fully developed processes and negotiate priorities for the best path forward. "The Blue Grass team has been able to come together and develop a very good working relationship to accomplish the demilitarization mission even though this team is comprised of several organizations with different chains of command," said Mr. Karl E. Slaughenhaupt, then chief of operations, BGCA, "We work with BGCAPP, BGAD, the contractors, and our headquarters, the Chemical Materials Activity (CMA), just to name a few. We have developed effective communications and a unity of effort to ensure this mission is successfully completed."
Communication is a key part of the Operations Directorate, BGCA, which is responsible for command and control of operations in the chemical limited area within the BGCA. The emergency operations center ensures that safety systems and measures are in place for daily operations and continuously monitors situations such as incoming storms that may result in unsafe conditions, possibly suspending operations.
The BGCA emergency operations center leads the development of first-responder protocols for joint operations with BGCAPP and BGAD. Weekly exercises including the BGCAPP control room have led to a clear understanding and synchronization of reporting requirements for both chemical and non-chemical events. These exercises involve vapor detection in the explosive storage magazine by the static detonation chamber, the munitions transport vehicle (known as an enhanced on-site container), and areas of the main plant where agent should not be detected. Non-chemical events may include vehicle accidents in a controlled area, weather-related mishaps, or a security breach.
BGCA conducts quarterly chemical accident and/or incident response and assistance exercises, which include events in the storage area and within the demilitarization footprint. To accomplish training objectives and ensure readiness, exercise planners create a variety of scenarios, including such events as lightning strikes or equipment failures. These scenarios require that workers and responders "think on their feet" and take appropriate action to protect fellow employees, the community, and the environment. After every exercise, evaluators compile a list of best practices and areas of improvement for each function.
The Operations Directorate, BGCA, leads the planning and execution of the exercises to test emergency preparedness capabilities among the three primary mission partners and to continually improve and enhance response times and skills. Operations personnel also coordinate exercises with personnel and organizations off the depot site, such as local emergency responders, schools, hospitals, nearby counties, and the State of Kentucky. This helps ensure that in the unlikely event of a chemical accident or incident, all parties involved know how to effectively execute proper response protocols to protect the workforce, community, and environment.
Preventing a chemical event is a primary goal of the Project Management Directorate, BGCA. In addition to efforts to improve roads, buildings, igloo access areas (earth-covered bunker where munitions are stored), and power in the chemical limited area, the project management team provides quality assurance specialists (ammunition surveillance), who participate in chemical operations to ensure that toxic material handlers are safely moving munitions. They check on medical monitoring, inspect equipment, help ensure chemical munitions accountability, and ensure that workers wear proper personal protective equipment. "Our people are fully committed to the demilitarization process and will do what it takes to safely accomplish the mission," said Mr. Thomas A. Enricco, chief of surveillance, "Our environmental staff also plays a big role to ensure the safety of our workers and the environment."
The environmental team ensures that the organization complies with Army regulations; environmental permits; and local, state, and federal laws by conducting training and inspecting waste sites. It prepares and solid and hazardous waste generated by the organization and ships it to treatment and disposal facilities in accordance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the U.S. Department of Transportation requirements.1
Solid and hazardous wastes are generated during routine chemical operations. The Chemical Operations Directorate monitors chemical weapons, and moves them within the warehouse, and conducts isolation operations for leaking munitions. When a monitoring system detects agent emissions inside an igloo, toxic material handler crews don appropriate personal protective equipment before entering the igloo to identify and isolate the problematic munition(s). The personal protective equipment and items used to decontaminate the igloo must be properly disposed of as hazardous waste.
The Chemical Operations Directorate also moves chemical munitions out of storage to an enhanced on-site container for movement to the demilitarization plant for destruction. "We have been doing static storage for a long time," said Mr. David Velazquez, director of Chemical Operations Directorate, "Demilitarization is now the priority. We have trained for this transition and have scheduled our storage requirements to fully support transporting munitions to the plant."
Multiple systems are in place so nothing "falls through the cracks." Before each operation, chemical operation leaders review personnel available, resources, standard operating procedures, equipment, and regulations to ensure that there are no limiting conditions that would halt the day's scheduled activities. Chemical Operations leaders meet with BGAD and BGCAPP personnel to plan operations and discuss transportation details before each movement of munitions from storage to the plant.
BGCA has worked closely with partner organizations to build a cohesive team with security, medical, quality assurance (ammunition surveillance), laboratory, monitoring, toxic material handler, weapons accountability, and enhanced on-site container and seal test personnel. Rigorous training events and numerous exercises have helped to ensure that everyone involved in transporting munitions is fully trained and prepared to handle unexpected situations during operations. The success of this training partnership was apparent with the first enhanced on-site container transport of mustard projectiles to the BGCAPP footprint in June.
Once the chemical stockpile destruction mission is complete, BGCA is slated for deactivation which means that many skilled workers are looking for employment elsewhere. According to Mr. Velazquez, personnel turnover presents an added challenge because of the extensive training required chemical operations workers to be productive members of the team; other BGCA leaders echoed this sentiment. "The Army's greatest asset is our people," Mr. Hall said, "Retention of quality personnel is certainly an area of concern. However, we have systems in place to take care of those who stay for the long haul. We will focus on maintaining morale, keeping people motivated, assisting with follow-on federal employment, and providing monetary incentives and retention bonuses as the Army allows."
CMA provides extensive expertise to fill knowledge gaps resulting from personnel turnover. CMA personnel conduct surety assistance visits and participate in working groups and readiness, operations, and closure meetings to help BGCA create a path forward to complete its mission, transition the workforce, and close the activity. "Nearly everyone on the CMA staff has done chemical operations and closure activities," Mr. Hall said, "Their contribution to the long-term success of operations here on the ground cannot be overstated. The institutional knowledge they offer is invaluable." The CMA surety office provides oversight for security, safety, emergency response, and reliability programs to ensure that they are receiving the necessary emphasis and resources. Since BGCA is a compliance-based organization, adherence to multiple regulations, laws, checklists, policies, and standard operating procedures is vital. These control measures lead to the safe and secure storage of chemical munitions by trustworthy personnel until the munitions are destroyed.
"Organizations are successful because of their people," Mr. Hall said, "This team has remained resilient and disciplined while preparing for demilitarization, understanding that they are working themselves out of a job. As an organizational leader, I take great satisfaction in this. This team on the ground will be etched into history as the folks who facilitated the destruction of the chemical stockpile."
Environmental Protection Agency, "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Laws and Regulations", https://www.epa.gov/rcra>, accessed on 25 November 2018.
Lieutenant Colonel McCutcheon is the commander of the BGCA, Richmond, Kentucky. He holds a master's degree in environmental management from Webster University, Webster Groves, Missouri.
Ms. Messinger is the public affairs officer for the BGCA, Richmond, Kentucky. She holds a master's degree in military operational arts and science from the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama.
This story was originally published in the Army Chemical Review.