Monday, January 24, 2005

A Fine Mess

What was the point of America's chemical weapons program? We spent billions of dollars developing enormous stockpiles of these unreliable, unpredictable weapons. Now, we're spending billions more to destroy them. Our greatest strategic accomplishment with CW technology (besides helping Saddam gas his enemies) came in 1968, when shifting winds during a VX test resulted in over 6,000 dead sheep, an accident which cost taxpayers over a million dollars.

Chemical weapons were a woefully stupid idea from the start. World War I told us all we needed to know about the logistical problems with using them on the battlefield; there was never a compelling reason to start mass production of them in this country. One can at least understand the logic behind the appeal of biological and nuclear weapons to the Cold Warriors, but our CW production was never anything more than a waste of time and money (or, if you prefer, a massive taxpayer giveaway to defense profiteers). Our CW program posed - and still poses - more danger to us than it ever did to any enemy.

Consider the situation in Colorado, where there are plans to build a $1.6 billion plant to destroy our useless, pointless stockpiles of mustard gas:

Pueblo officials have viewed construction of a neutralization plant to eliminate more than 780,000 mustard-gas munitions stored at the depot as an economic boon that could bring as many as 1,000 jobs to the area.
Whether this constitutes an economic boon for taxpaying citizens is debatable, but it's certainly a boon for Bechtel, which "won" the contract to build the plant.

On the other hand, maybe it won't bring in any jobs. Maybe it won't even get built:
[Colorado senators] Allard and Salazar said they were assured by Patrick Wakefield, a deputy assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the weapons would be destroyed at the Pueblo facility and wouldn't be shipped out of state. But in a memo the Army received Jan. 14, Wakefield ordered the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency to provide a briefing by Feb. 18 on destruction alternatives, including relocation.
The prospective plant in Colorado would use neutralization and biotreatment, a relatively safe (i.e., not obviously disastrous) method of disposal recommended by a DoD program called Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA). Budget problems at the Pentagon, however, are making relocation and incineration seem more likely; in that case, Pueblo's weapons would probably end up at Tooele, Utah.

Relocation, of course, involves transporting these extremely toxic materials over several hundred miles; that's a situation that should always be avoided. Incineration is a bad idea even when it's done properly; as many commentators have pointed out, it's not disposal so much as dispersal. That said, there are many, many reasons to oppose incinerating chemical weapons at Tooele.

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