The Richmond Register

July 21, 2009

Army: Agent monitoring system was inoperative

Ronica Shannon

Chemical weapons stockpiled at the Blue Grass Army Depot went two years without being monitored, according to a report released Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The U.S. Army’s inspector general’s agency investigated several claims made by Donald VanWinkle, a former depot whistle blower, who claimed he was retaliated against when he voiced concerns about how the weapon storage igloos were being monitored.

The report covered September 2003 through August 2005 and was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by PEER.

Blue Grass Chemical Activity (BGCA) spokesman Dick Sloan said Monday he had not seen the report and had no immediate comment. However, the BGCA will be issuing a statement later today, Sloan said.

“We have received a copy of the inspector general’s report and will go over it carefully to see if there’s anything additional we can do to provide enhanced safety for the community and its citizens,” Sloan said.

The BGCA is the entity in charge of the safe storage, monitoring and demolition of chemical weapons being stored at the depot.

Some chemical weapons in storage are filled with GB agent and others are filled with VX agent. Both are deadly, but VX agent cannot be seen, whereas GB turns into a gas and spreads throughout the atmosphere.

Because VX is invisible “ ... Blue Grass (Army Depot) had no means ... to determine whether the odorless, colorless nerve gas was seeping from the rockets in which the agent is stored,” according to a statement released Monday by PEER spokesperson Kirsten Stade.

“The concern that the miniature chemical agent monitoring system sampling configuration at (the depot) for VX was incorrect is founded for the period of September 2003 through August 2005,” the inspector general report states.

If the nerve agent leaked into the atmosphere during this time, there still would be no great environmental impact, according to Craig Williams, director of the Berea-based Chemical Weapons Working Group.

The group serves as a watchdog to make sure the chemical weapons are stored and destroyed in a way that is environmentally friendly.

“Because of the type of agent involved in this issue, I think that any environmental concerns are almost zero because VX is not volitive and does not move through the environment like GB does,” Williams said. “In this case, I think they weren’t using the equipment right, but I don’t think it had any negative effect.”

The inspector general’s office could not find evidence to support several other claims made by VanWinkle that included: igloo air-monitoring reports were incorrect, depot workers were subjected to the lethal nerve agent, maintenance of air monitoring equipment used at the depot was deficient and the nerve agent conversion pads had not been changed out as required, resulting in erroneous readings.

The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection (KDEP), however, confirmed many of VanWinkle’s other disclosures.

The KDEP issued citations to the BGCA in 2007 for: not testing spills from rockets containing agent that are stored inside the igloos, improper storage practices which crush the shells of rockets and cause leaks, and failing to ensure employees are properly trained to prevent release of chemical warfare agents.

Unlike the inspector general, the state agency acknowledged that there is no way of knowing whether there were leaks during the period that the monitors were inoperative, according to PEER’s report.

Ronica Shannon can be reached at rshannon@ richmondregister.com or 624-6608.