In a sealed room behind a group of armed guards and three rows of barbed wire at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, a team of robotic arms he was busy dismantle some of the United States’ last vast and fearsome stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Entered artillery shells filled with deadly mustard agent that the Army had been stockpiling for more than 70 years. The bright yellow robots drilled, drained and washed each shell, then cooked it at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Out came an inert, harmless scrap metal, which fell off a conveyor belt into an ordinary brown dumpster with a resounding clang.
« This is the sound of a chemical weapon dying, » said Kingston Reif, who has spent years pushing for disarmament outside government and is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for threat reduction and threat control. armaments. He smiled as another grenade fell into the dumpster.
Destroying the stockpiles has taken decades, and the Army says the job is almost done. The depot near Pueblo destroyed its last weapon in June; the remaining handful in another depot in Kentucky will be destroyed over the next few days. And when they are gone, all publicly declared chemical weapons in the world will have been eliminated.
America’s stockpiles, amassed over generations, were of a shocking size: cluster bombs and land mines filled with nerve agents. Artillery shells that could cover entire forests with a searing mustard mist. Tanks filled with poison that could be loaded onto jets and sprayed on targets below.
They were a class of weapons deemed so inhumane that their use was condemned after World War I, but even so the United States and other powers continued to develop and stockpile them. Some contained deadlier versions of the chlorine and mustard agents made famous in the trenches of the Western Front. Others contained nerve agents developed later, such as VX and sarin, which are lethal even in small quantities.
The American military is not known to have used lethal chemical weapons in battle since 1918, although during the Vietnam War they used herbicides such as Agent Orange that were harmful to humans.
The United States also once had a large biological warfare and biological weapons program; those weapons were destroyed in the 1970s.
The United States and the Soviet Union agreed in principle in 1989 to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons, and when the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, the United States and other signatories pledged to get rid of of chemical weapons once and for all.
But destroying them wasn’t easy: they were built to be burned, not taken apart. The combination of explosives and poison makes them extremely dangerous to handle.
Defense Department officials once predicted the work could be done within a few years at a cost of about $1.4 billion. It is now decades overdue, costing close to $42 billion, 2,900% over budget.
But it’s done.
« It’s been an ordeal, that’s for sure — I wondered if I’d ever see the day, » said Craig Williams, who began pushing for safe destruction of stockpiles in 1984 when he learned the Army was stockpiling tons of weapons chemicals five miles from his home, at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky.
« We’ve had to fight and it’s taken a long time, but I think we should be very proud, » he said. « This is the first time globally that an entire class of weapons of mass destruction will be destroyed. »
Other powers have also destroyed their declared stockpiles: Britain in 2007, India in 2009, Russia in 2017. But Pentagon officials warn that chemical weapons have not been completely eradicated. Some nations never signed the treaty and some that did, notably Russia, appear to have kept undeclared stockpiles.
Nor did the treaty end the use of chemical weapons by rogue states and terrorist groups. Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the country numerous times between 2013 and 2019. According to the IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based intelligence gathering and analysis service, fighters from the state have used chemical weapons at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2016.
America’s immense stockpiles and the decades-long effort to dispose of them are both a monument to human folly and a testament to human potential, say those involved. The work took so much time in part because citizens and lawmakers have insisted that the job be done without endangering surrounding communities.
In late June, at the 15,000-acre Blue Grass repository, workers carefully extracted fiberglass shipping tubes that contained sarin-filled flares from earth-covered concrete storage bunkers and hauled them to a series of buildings for processing.
Workers inside, wearing protective suits and gloves, X-rayed the tubes to see if the warheads inside were leaking, then sent them down a conveyor belt to meet their fate.
It was the last time humans handled weapons. From there, the robots did the rest.
Chemical munitions share essentially the same design: a thin-walled warhead filled with liquid agent and a small explosive charge to open it on the battlefield, leaving a spray of small droplets, mist and vapor – the « poison gas » soldiers have feared from the Somme to the Tigris.
For generations, the US military promised to use chemical weapons only in response to an enemy chemical attack, and then decided to stockpile so many that no enemy would dare. In the 1960s, the United States had a highly secretive network of manufacturing facilities and storage complexes around the world.
The public knew little about how vast and deadly the stock had grown until one snowy spring morning in 1968, when 5,600 sheep mysteriously died on land adjacent to an Army test site in Utah.
Under pressure from Congress, military leaders acknowledged that the Army had tested VX nearby, was storing chemical weapons at facilities in eight states, and was testing them in the open air at a number of locations, including a site in 25 miles from Baltimore.
Once the public learned the extent of the program, the long road to destruction began.
At first, the military wanted to overtly do what it had been doing covertly for years with outdated chemical munitions: load them onto outdated ships and then scuttle the ships at sea. But the public responded angrily.
Plan B was to burn the stockpiles in huge incinerators, but even that plan hit a wall of opposition.
Mr. Williams was a 36-year Vietnam War veteran and cabinetmaker in 1984 when Army officials announced that the nerve agent would be burned at the Blue Grass depot.
« There were a lot of people asking questions about what was going to come out of the pile and we weren’t getting any answers, » he said.
Outraged, he and others organized opposition to the incinerators, lobbied lawmakers, and called in experts who argued that incinerators would spew toxins.
Incinerators in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah, and one on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, have been used to destroy much of the stockpile, but activists have blocked them in four other states.
Following orders from Congress to find another way, the Department of Defense has developed new techniques for destroying chemical weapons without burning them.
« We had to figure that out as we went along, » said Walton Levi, a chemical engineer at the Pueblo depot, who began field work after college in 1987 and now plans to retire once the last round is destroyed.
In Pueblo, each shell is pierced by a robotic arm and the mustard agent inside is sucked up. The shell is washed and cooked in the oven to destroy any remaining traces. The mustard agent is diluted in hot water, then broken down by bacteria in a process not unlike that used in wastewater treatment plants.
It produces a residue that’s mostly ordinary table salt, Levi said, but it’s laced with heavy metals that require handling as hazardous waste.
“The bacteria are extraordinary,” Mr. Levi said as he watched the destruction of shells during the last day of operations in Pueblo. « He Finds the right ones and they’ll eat just about anything. »
The process is similar to filing Blue Grass. The liquid nerve agents drained from those tested are mixed with water and caustic soda and then heated and stirred. The resulting liquid, called a hydrolyzate, is transported to a plant outside Port Arthur, Texas, where it is incinerated.
« It’s a nice piece of history to have behind us, » said Candace M. Coyle, Army project manager for the Blue Grass depot. « That’s the best part, is that it won’t hurt anyone. »
Irene Kornelly, chair of the citizens’ advisory commission that oversaw Pueblo’s trial for 30 years, kept track of nearly a million mustard shells destroyed. Now 77, she leaned on a cane and craned her neck to watch the last one being demolished.
« Honestly, I never thought this day would come, » she said. « The military didn’t know if they could trust the people, and the people didn’t know if they could trust the military. »
He looked at the beige factory buildings and empty concrete bunkers on the Colorado prairie. Nearby, a crowd of workers in overalls with emergency gas masks on their hips gathered in celebration. The plant manager blared « The Final Countdown » and handed out red, white, and blue Bomb Pops.
Mrs Kornelly smiled as she took everything. The process had been smooth, safe and so tiring, she said, that many the residents of the region had forgotten this was happening.
« Most people today don’t have a clue that any of this happened — they never had to worry about it, » she said. He paused, then added, « And I think that’s good. »