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The San Francisco Chronicle March 4, 2003

Challenge of destroying chemical weapons

By David R. Baker

Later this month, workers at a Maryland military base will begin destroying some of the weapons the world fears most.

Shielded by Plexiglas barriers and rubber gloves, they will drain a thick, toxic liquid known as mustard agent from steel containers left over from America's defunct chemical weapons program.

The mustard agent, which blisters skin on contact, will be mixed with a hot water solution to neutralize it at the base's new treatment plant, built by San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. The chemical stew then will be trucked to another site, where microbes will devour any harmful compounds lingering in the mix.

The United States has years of experience destroying such weapons, now at the center of the showdown between President Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Bechtel alone has worked on three of America's nine plants -- some active, some still under construction -- to neutralize or burn chemical weapons.

And yet, if American forces invade Iraq and find the chemical and biological weapons that Bush insists are there, getting rid of them may not be as easy as shipping them to one of those plants. Few people would welcome bringing such lethal cargo back to the United States for destruction. And some of the nerve agents believed to be in Iraq's arsenal require careful handling to destroy in the field.

"You could burn it and just not stand downwind. I wouldn't want to do that," said Greg Mahall, U.S. Army spokesman at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, site of Bechtel's new plant. "Nerve agents are a pesticide for people."

Much would depend on the kinds of weapons found, their proximity to cities or towns and their condition upon seizure. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, United Nations inspectors quickly had to craft a way to incinerate Iraqi mustard weapons that were starting to leak, said former U.N. biological weapons inspector Raymond Zilinskas.

"The alternative was to keep the damn stuff," said Zilinskas, now director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program. "There's no middle ground here."

U.S. BOUND BY TREATY

Chemical weapons can be destroyed through heat and by exposure to other chemicals. The United States, bound by an international treaty to destroy its own stockpile, has used both ways.

Located about 30 miles from Baltimore, the Aberdeen plant mixes mustard agent with 190-degree water and sodium hydroxide. Trucks carry the solution to a nearby hazardous waste treatment plant for further processing.

Mustard agent, some of it made during World War II, has been sitting at Aberdeen for decades, a weapon the U.S. military chose not to use.

With shifts of personnel working days, nights and weekends, all 1,815 containers should be drained in less than a year, said Miguel Monteverde, public outreach manager for Bechtel's Aberdeen operation. The entire project will cost taxpayers about $240 million, he said.

Elsewhere, the military has opted for incineration. Another new, Bechtel-built plant, at the Anniston Army Depot in eastern Alabama, has furnaces burning as hot as 2,000 degrees.

It can destroy mustard agent as well as the deadly nerve agents VX and Sarin, Mahall said, with the furnace exhaust scrubbed to remove residue. The plant has not yet started operations.

Critics charge that scrubbing can't catch everything. Weapons incineration projects in the United States have been dogged by complaints that they spew dioxins, mercury and other contaminants into the air.

"It's all your very favorite toxic chemicals," said Craig Williams, director of the nonprofit Chemical Weapons Working Group, which pushes for cleaner disposal methods.

PLANTS CALLED SAFE

Mahall insists the plants are safe.

"Nothing is clean, but they are some of the cleanest facilities of their kind, when stacked up against (energy) co-generation facilities or steel mills," he said. "I have no problems being around one of these facilities."

U.S. troops in Iraq probably wouldn't have access to treatment plants. Instead, they would most likely have to deal with chemical weapons caches in the field.

The work is tricky but not impossible. U.N. inspectors who entered the country after the Gulf War supervised the destruction of mustard weapons as well as nerve agents. Mustard agent stored in bulk was mixed with diesel fuel and burned in incinerators constructed on site, Zilinskas said. Although not as sophisticated as the carefully designed weapons incinerators in the United States, the furnaces worked.

Some weapons loaded with mustard agent were cracked open with explosives so it could be removed and incinerated, Zilinskas said. Nerve agents were taken to the Iraqi plant where they were manufactured, mixed with chemicals to deactivate them and dumped in the desert, Zilinskas said.

Leaking mustard weapons were destroyed in pits out in the desert, with their contents spilled into split-open oil drums filled with gasoline, Zilinskas said. The chemicals were then set on fire, with air samplers nearby monitoring for any toxic residue. The samplers didn't find any, he said.

"It's not a way you could ever do it in the United States, but you did have this vast open land without anyone being closer than 40 or 50 miles," Zilinskas said.

If the United States invades, Williams wants the military to avoid burning Iraqi chemical weapons and instead neutralize them, building special facilities if necessary.

"They're not that expensive, considering what this war is going to cost us," he said. "That, to me, is a reasonable approach from a troop-protection standpoint, a population-protection standpoint and an environmental-protection standpoint."

Although Bechtel has the expertise, and an extensive history of working with the Pentagon, a company spokesman declined to say whether his firm has been contacted to help dispose of chemical weapons during a possible war.

"There is no war in Iraq right now, and we don't have any business there right now," said spokesman Jonathan Marshall.

A Pentagon spokesman did not respond to questions about the military's plans for dealing with such weapons in a possible invasion.

Then there are the biological weapons -- including anthrax and botulism toxin -- believed to lurking in Iraq's arsenal.

Many biological weapons can be destroyed with heat or bleach. Although lethal once released, they can be relatively simple to kill, said Gregory Jones, a specialist in weapons of mass destruction at Rand.

"Most biologicals are pretty fragile," he said. "You could put them in the oven in my house for a couple hours, and most of them would be gone."

Anthrax spores, however, are tougher than that. They can be destroyed with formaldehyde or high heat if they haven't been released into the environment, Jones said. Once out, they can linger for years.

In the 1980s, Britain decontaminated a 520-acre island off the Scottish coast used for anthrax weapons experiments during World War II. Cleaning the island required soaking the ground in formaldehyde and seawater.

Some analysts fear a similar, potentially lethal mess if Hussein choses to use his chemical and biological weapons during a possible U.S. attack.

"There would be no strategic reason for him to withhold available stockpiles," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy group. "He won't be able to take them with him. They won't do anything for him when he's dead."

E-mail David R. Baker at dbaker@sfchronicle.com.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Bechtel worker Darryl Cole stands at one of three glove boxes where mustard agent containers will be drained in Maryland. / Bechtel


Copyright 2003, The Chronicle Publishing Co.