Aberdeen munitions disposal delayed

Congress' budget cuts stall destruction of chemical weapons

August 24, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The destruction of aging chemical munitions at Aberdeen Proving Ground will be delayed at least seven months and could fall two years behind schedule because of congressional budget cuts, increasing the risk of leakage, defense officials say.

Charging that the Army's program to destroy the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons is rife with lax financial management, Congress is cutting hundreds of millions from the program, a move that will also postpone chemical weapons destruction in other states as well, officials said. The destruction of the Aberdeen stockpile had been scheduled to begin in 2004 and be completed by 2005.

The Army, meanwhile, is disputing those allegations and warning that delays pose a risk to those living near the disposal sites, where a blistering mustard agent and lethal nerve agent are carefully stored in either artillery shells or containers.

"The longer they stay there the more they corrode," said Theodore M. Prociv, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for chemical demilitarization. The artillery shells are at least 40 years old, he said, and some of the containers are old and corroding as well.

Already there have been 4,140 leaks at the nation's chemical munitions storage sites since the Army began keeping records in 1983, though none of them occurred at Aberdeen. All the leaks were relatively minor, and there were no injuries. In 1985, Congress called for the destruction of the obsolete chemical weapons by 2007.

"Continued storage is a greater risk than disposal," said Mickey Morales, a spokesman for the Army's Office of the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization. Army officials said they held their collective breath in the spring, when a tornado came close to a chemical weapons disposal site in Arkansas. "The biggest threat is external events, like tornadoes, lightning and earthquakes," Morales said.

A dozen senators, including Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, have written to the Armed Services Committee, urging that the money be restored and pointing to "serious negative consequences for the local communities" if the destruction program is delayed.

Moreover, defense officials say that the cuts and resulting delays might mean that the United States will be unable to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty ratified by the United States two years ago. The convention calls for the destruction of all such munitions by 2007.

The mustard agent blisters the eyes, skin and could in some cases lead to death by constricting the breathing passages. Nerve agent is lethal; just a drop on the skin could be fatal.

In June, the Army began constructing a 10-building facility at Aberdeen that is scheduled to destroy 1,500 tons of mustard agent by 2005. It will take 3 1/2 years to build the facility, which will destroy the agent with hot water and bacteria.

Other facilities are either planned, under construction or already disposing munitions in other states. Those disposal sites contain either mustard agent or nerve agent. As of June, 14 percent of the nation's stockpiled chemical weapons -- about 4,259 tons -- have been destroyed.

But the Aberdeen project will now be delayed by seven to 10 months as a result of $93 million in cuts for construction of the Aberdeen facility and those in other states, Morales said. Those reductions in the Defense Department's military construction bill have been approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton.

In addition, Congress has called for more cuts in the program's office budget. The House's proposed cuts would mean a two-year delay in the Aberdeen program, defense officials said, while the Senate reduction would mean the program would fall a year behind schedule. The Army's other disposal facilities would face a year's delay should the House version prevail, they said.

Congressional officials defended the program's cuts, criticizing the Army in a House Appropriations report for its "lack of management and financial oversight," and for failing to spend much of the money it has on hand.

"We just have a hard time understanding what they're doing with the money," said one Republican congressional aide. "They haven't gotten money out the door."

Members of Congress have also criticized the program for spending money on outside consultants to "promote" the program to lawmakers, the House report said.

Congress has asked the Pentagon's inspector general to review the program, which has received $6.2 billion since 1988 and is expected to spend $15 billion through 2007.

But Army officials argue that a Pentagon review has found that many of the financial concerns cited by Congress are beyond the control of the chemical munitions destruction program.

A report completed last month by the Pentagon's comptroller found that the low expenditure rates were the result of a number of factors, including construction and design setbacks and delayed permits from state and local agencies, which sometimes can take years.

The report found no evidence of inadequate management controls or any violations of Pentagon financial regulations.

"We have a problem with dispersal," said Prociv, the assistant Army secretary. "We don't spend money as fast as other government programs. We sit and we wait for a state permit."

Still, Prociv said he is working to modernize the program's business systems to speed payments.

Moreover, Prociv asserted that the program was not paying consultants to promote chemical demilitarization before Congress but to serve as administrative and support staff.

"We don't have the manpower; we have to hire contractors," he said. "We don't hire them to lobby."

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