The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria thrusts the international spotlight onto the same deadly “nerve agents” stored at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.
Sarin, one of the world’s most dangerous chemical warfare agents, has been identified by the United States as the substance loaded onto rockets on Aug. 21 and shot into the suburbs of Damascus. The Obama administration estimates that more than 1,400 people died.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is also thought to have used a network of front companies to import the precursors needed to make VX, the deadliest nerve agent ever created, The New York Times reported Sunday.
Both sarin and VX are internationally banned, both are stored in Madison County and both are scheduled to be destroyed there by a massive plant that is 72 percent complete. The plant is supposed to be finished in 2015, but it will take until 2020 for it to become operational. Then, according to the current timeline, it will take from 2020 to 2023 to destroy the weapons, said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea-based citizens group that monitors the remaining weapons in Kentucky and Pueblo, Colo.
The international discussion over the alleged use of these weapons “highlights the lethality of this stuff that’s sitting here,” Williams said. “It tells me that we’re on the right track of getting rid of this stuff for the safety of the local community, but also as a contribution to the global disposal of this stuff.
“The fact that it was even made is ridiculous, but the fact that we’re moving forward is a positive thing,” Williams said. “It certainly puts a bright line under the awareness of what it is we’ve got here and why we need to get rid of it in a safe manner.”
President Obama will address the nation Tuesday night in a televised address to make his case to attack Syria in reprisal for using chemical weapons. The Obama administration has argued that the use of chemical weapons anywhere threatens the United States and its personnel everywhere.
Sarin disrupts the nervous system and overstimulates muscles and vital organs. It can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through the skin. In high doses, sarin suffocates its victims by paralyzing the muscles around their lungs. About one drop of sarin can kill the average person in a few minutes.
What’s worse is that sarin has been used by terrorists. In 1995, a Japanese doomsday cult used sarin in an attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and sent more than 5,000 to hospitals.
If purer sarin had been released, particularly as an aerosol, the 1995 attack might have been much worse, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.
VX is even more potent. It’s been said that a drop of VX the size of George Washington’s eye on a quarter is enough to kill a healthy 180-pound man within seconds. A cocktail of drugs can act as an antidote, but VX acts so quickly that victims “would have to be injected with antidote almost immediately to have a chance of survival,” the Council on Foreign Relations says.
Although there is no conclusive evidence, some experts and an Iraqi defector say that Saddam Hussein used VX against Iranian forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and then again in a 1988 attack on Iraqi Kurds. That massacre reportedly killed 5,000 people and created health problems for thousands more.
VX was never used by the American military in combat. Its lethal potential was demonstrated in 1968 when an aerial spraying test of VX at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah went awry, killing thousands of grazing sheep.
Sarin and VX are called “nerve agents” because they break down an enzyme that allows nerves to talk to each other, so victims become overstimulated. Difficulty in breathing, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and respiratory failure can result.
Blue Grass Army Depot was completed in 1942, and the first mustard projectiles arrived there in 1944.
Sarin was developed by a German chemist as a pesticide in 1938, and VX was developed by Great Britain in the 1950s in the course of researching pesticides. The United States began full-scale production of VX in 1961, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union began to heat up.
“It was the arm’s race mentality,” Williams said. “They were making it. We were making it. They made more, we made more.”
The first rockets containing VX arrived at Blue Grass in 1962 and the first sarin rockets arrived in 1963. Sarin and VX projectiles arrived in 1965 and 1966, respectively. President Nixon halted the manufacture of chemical weapons in 1969.
At Blue Grass, the weapons are stored in the Chemical Limited Area, a 250-acre site of the 15,000-acre depot. Fences surrounding the area are topped with coiled razor wire, and signs warn intruders that “Use of Deadly Force is Authorized.”
The weapons are cradled in wooden pallets and stacked like bottles of wine in 44 dirt-covered concrete bunkers or “igloos.”
Blue Grass is the last site in the United States to continue storing sarin and VX; together, they comprise 433 tons of chemicals weapons stored in Madison County. The remaining 90 tons are mustard or blister agent.
It’s commonly reported that Blue Grass has 523 tons of chemical weapons. To be more accurate, that’s the tonnage of the sarin, VX and mustard chemicals alone.
“In other words, if you drained all the agent out of all the weapons, and put it in a big container and put it on a scale, that’s what it would weigh,” minus the explosive components, metal parts, shipping tubes or packaging materials, Williams said.
While the nerve agents are often referred to as “gas,” they’re actually viscous liquids with the consistency of mineral oil. Only if they were exploded from the air would they become an aerosol or “gas” that disperses.
Blue Grass Army Depot will be the last of nine sites to destroy its chemical weapons. The task is harder there because, unlike other sites, the chemicals are loaded in explosive M55 rockets and corroding projectiles that were meant to be shot out of cannons. The plant under construction will make heavy use of robots and other automated assemblies to separate the explosives and metal from the chemicals. Even with that automation, it will employ about 1,000 people.
The Army plans to heat the VX and sarin in chemical reactors to destroy them. The resulting hydrolysate will contain no detectable toxins. (While no final decision has been made, the mustard agent might be destroyed in a different process.)
Aside from Syria, the other four nations that have neither signed nor acceded to an international treaty banning chemical weapons are Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. Israel signed the treaty but its parliament has not ratified it. Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has also not ratified the treaty.