By Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and Congressman Ben Chandler, D-Ky.
Kentuckians got some good news recently regarding the deadly chemical weapons stored by the Department of Defense at the Blue Grass Army Depot. A recent report from the Department announced progress toward their disposal and a path forward for complete elimination.
For years, the people of Central Kentucky have lived and worked near stockpiles of weapons such as VX nerve agent, mustard gas and sarin nerve agent. It has taken the work of a unique partnership between federal lawmakers and the local community — spearheaded by the Chemical Weapons Working Group and Craig Williams — for the Department to realize the gravity of the situation and to reverse its position toward a safe disposal alternative.
After many years, the Department has finally acknowledged the priority of this project to safely dispose of these weapons. Proof of this is seen in its latest budget request to complete this important project. Because of the 2017 deadline Congress enacted, the Department has finally agreed to a long-term, five-year budget plan that is robustly funded.
For years, the Department failed to request sufficient funding for the elimination of these weapons, showing it was not taking the effort seriously. Over the past several years, we worked together to pass legislation in Congress increasing the project’s funding one year at a time. While we were met with some success, it was an uphill fight since there was not a finalized, long-term plan on how to best speed up the disposal efforts. At last, the Department has put its foot on the accelerator.
While the Blue Grass Army Depot project is still in its construction phase, the Administration requested $545 million for the Blue Grass Army Depot and Pueblo Depot to dispose of these weapons in its 2010 budget. This is the highest request for this project in history. Just five years ago, the request was for only $33 million. This increased request — combined with a commitment to a well-funded, five-year budget plan — demonstrates that the Department has finally acknowledged this project’s importance and is working to finish it.
The Department has also decided not to ship hydrolysate, a dangerous chemical by-product of the disposed weapons, off-site for disposal, but instead will eliminate it safely and efficiently at the Blue Grass Army Depot. Hydrolysate can burn the skin and contaminate our water supply. If it were to be transported off-site on Kentucky roads, just one accident would put significant numbers of people at risk.
Shipping hydrolysate off-site would ship those jobs off-site with it. In fact, it is important to remember that the funding for the Blue Grass Army Depot and its disposal efforts have made a big difference to the region’s economy, translating into commerce, construction and jobs. At its peak, this disposal effort should employ about 700 people.
The Department’s current projections estimate that disposal work will be completed by perhaps 2020 or 2021, as opposed to 2017. We believe this is a cautious, conservative projection, and that the Department is capable of adhering to the 2017 deadline. We will be closely monitoring the Department’s progress and will continue to push for disposal by 2017. Whatever happens from here, we are miles ahead of last year’s initial estimate of a 2027 disposal completion date.
One final point we would add is that the chemical stockpile at Blue Grass Army Depot will be the last one in the nation to be destroyed. It has been public knowledge for 20 years that ours would be the final weapons site to see complete disposal because of the variety and comparatively small amount of chemical agents stored here.
Obviously, there still is more work to do, and there are many problems left to be resolved. We will continue to work closely with the community in watching the Department and making sure it follows through on its promises, reminding the Department at every turn that the safety and well-being of Kentuckians comes first.
Mitch McConnell is the Republican Leader of the U.S. Senate. Ben Chandler is the U.S. Representative from Kentucky’s 6th District.