RICHMOND, Kentucky - The U.S. Army is expected to begin draining and neutralizing a container of lethal nerve agent on Wednesday, almost 15 months after a one-gallon (3.8-liter) leak was identified at a Kentucky storage site for chemical weapons.
After months of assuaging environmental and community concerns, the Army said on Monday that a mobile biological agent unit deployed from Maryland would begin handling the steel container and two similar ones held in a bunker at Blue Grass Army Depot, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Lexington.
The project named "Operation Swift Solution" has not gone as swiftly as hoped, but Army officials said they expected the project would solve the problem.
Although small vapor leaks are routine and largely benign at the stockpile of Cold War-era chemical weapons in Richmond and other sites nationwide, the sarin leak that occurred there Aug. 27, 2007, represented the largest and one of the most serious on record at the depot.
Sarin, first developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938, attacks the central nervous system and can cause death within hours in severe cases.
No worker or member of the surrounding community was exposed, and Army officials say they were confident none of the deadly agent escaped into the atmosphere outside the storage igloo. However, it sparked an outcry from some community leaders about whether the public was informed quickly enough.
Since the leak, that igloo is being tested daily rather than weekly and one of the vents has been closed. There was no air monitoring system outside the igloo at the time, but officials said that is not necessary because of the sophisticated monitoring inside.
The destruction unit, known as the Chemical Agent Transfer System, has been used to destroy some 2,000 other steel containers housing some of the world's deadliest materials, including those holding GB in Indiana and mustard gas in Maryland.
Once the agent is neutralized, the containers themselves will be cut open, cleaned of remaining residue and sent to an offsite smelter.
"Nobody has anything to worry about," said Lt. Col. David Musgrave, commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity. "We're confident we can do this safely."
Program officials have proceeded cautiously since the episode. While the container is not leaking now, they decided the threat of it happening again was reason enough to accelerate its destruction schedule.
The rest of the Kentucky depot's stockpile of sarin and mustard munitions are set for disposal no earlier than 2017 — likely last among the nation's chemical weapons stockpiles stored in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and Utah.
Although the original plan was for Operation Swift Solution to be conducted last spring, Kevin Flamm, program manager of the U.S. Department of Defense unit responsible for destroying the Colorado and Kentucky stockpiles, said completion now is not expected until early 2009. He said he wanted to make sure each step of the operation was well documented and that community leaders were confident it was being conducted safely.
"We were not going to rush into it," Flamm said. "It's been time well spent."