By Dan Elliott, Associated Press
DENVER — The U.S. Army plans to start operating a $4.5 billion plant next week that will destroy the nation’s largest remaining stockpile of mustard agent, complying with an international treaty that bans chemical weapons, officials said Wednesday.
The largely automated plant at the military’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado will begin destroying about 780,000 chemical-filled artillery shells soon after this weekend, said Greg Mohrman, site manager for the plant. He declined to be specific, citing security concerns and possible last-minute delays.
Robots will dismantle the shells, and the plant will use water and bacteria to neutralize the mustard agent, which can maim or kill by damaging skin, the eyes and airways. At full capacity, the facility can destroy an average of 500 shells a day and is expected to finish in mid-2020.
The depot has already destroyed 560 shells and bottles of mustard agent that were leaking or had other problems that made them unsuitable for the plant.
Those containers were placed in a sealed chamber, torn open with explosive charges and neutralized with chemicals. That system can only destroy four to six shells a day.
The shells stored at the Pueblo depot contain a combined 2,600 tons of the chemical. They are being destroyed under a 1997 treaty.
Irene Kornelly, chairwoman of a citizens advisory commission that Congress established as a liaison between the public and the plant operators, said her group had no remaining safety concerns.
The Army stores an additional 523 tons of mustard and deadly nerve agents at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Blue Grass is expected to start destroying its weapons next year, finishing in 2023.