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Static detonation chambers likely to be used to destroy Colorado’s final chemical weapons

A worker in protective gear handles shells containing mustard gas that are being destroyed at a plant located on the Army's Pueblo Chemical Depot.
Courtesy Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant
U.S. Army
A worker in protective gear handles shells containing mustard gas that are being destroyed at a plant located on the Army's Pueblo Chemical Depot.

A final push to rid the United States of the last of its chemical weapons is underway at an Army depot in Pueblo. It involves the use of static detonation chambers, a form of incineration that represents a change, including additional environmental permitting, in how stockpiles are being destroyed. If emissions tests come within ranges acceptable to state officials, the detonation chambers will help keep the country on track to eliminate the weapons before a congressionally-mandated deadline at the end of 2023.

“We are shooting for 30 September, 2023,” Walton Levi told KUNC.

Levi is the site manager for the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, where hundreds of thousands of shells containing mustard gas are being dismantled. Almost two years of pandemic has not altered timelines, he said.

The Army depot in Pueblo, and another in Kentucky, are working to eliminate the weapons to bring the country into compliance with the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Hundreds of thousands of troops were injured and blinded by mustard gas during World War I and tens of thousands more died. After the war, international protocol banned the use of chemical weapons in 1925, but in the 1940s, the U.S. manufactured stockpiles in World War II amid fears that the Nazis would resort to them.

Many weapons were manufactured at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, east of Denver, and at least 780,000 were stockpiled by the Army in Pueblo. Today, robots help dismantle the weapons in a process where shells are opened, bursters neutralized, and the steel is recycled. The mustard agent goes to a reactor and is rendered into thiodiglycol, a chemical compound then consumed by microbes in a closed sewage system. The final product is a kind of contaminated salt that then goes to a landfill.

READ MORE: How mustard shells are destroyed

That process, used only on shells, does not work as efficiently and safely on another type of weapon at the depot: mortars. The static detonation chambers, or SDCs, are better-equipped to handle them, Levi said, as well as any leaking or otherwise problematic shells that pose a threat to workers and plant operations.

The chambers have fallen under the scrutiny of citizen watchdogs as they were not part of initial destruction plans in Pueblo. The site has faced scrutiny from the public for environmental and health concerns for decades.

“We have said from the very beginning of this program, ‘No, we don't want incineration,’” said Irene Kornelly, a member of the Colorado Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission, which closely follows the process of weapons destruction.

However, concerns over the use of SDCs at the site have been put to rest by state regulations, she said, adding that the commission is convinced the plan won’t be a threat to community health.

“It will be a minimal amount of emissions that will come out of the plant,” Kornelly said.

The chambers were granted an environmental permit from the state last October and are currently being tested. A trial burn team is monitoring the SDC exhaust stacks under varying conditions for pollutants, including mercury levels, to ensure operations will fall within state parameters.

Pending the results of those tests, the destruction of mortars in the SDCs will begin in coming weeks.

“We're very hopeful, optimistic, and I'll say, confident, that in February we'll start agent operations at the SDCs,” Levi said.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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