Designated as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Life Cycle Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization more than 24 years ago, the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville’s chemical demilitarization program is now nearing the end of its mission.
The completion of construction at Kentucky’s Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant – anticipated for July 2015 – will bring an end to the chemical demilitarization program, which has had a role in the design and/or construction of all nine of the Army’s chemical agent destruction facilities.
“We’ve been successful in helping destroy a horrible tool of war – chemical agents,” said Steve Light, chief of the Chemical Demilitarization Directorate’s Alternative Technologies Division. “It’s incredibly satisfying that we’ve been a part of that process.”
Huntsville Center’s official role in Army chemical demilitarization activities began in 1981 when the then Huntsville Division and the U.S. Army Toxic and Hazardous Materials Agency signed a memorandum of understanding to establish roles for a program for demilitarization of obsolete chemical weapons.
In 1982, Huntsville Center began design development for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) on Johnston Island in the Pacific, the Army’s flagship facility for destruction of chemical weapons using incineration technology – the preferred method for chemical weapons destruction at the time.
Huntsville Center engineers used lessons learned at JACADS, including site and process adaptations, to design the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah, which was the location of the largest original stockpile of nerve and blister agents in the United States.
By the end of 1987, the Huntsville Center was in the process of designing eight chemical weapons disposal facilities at continental U.S. military installations storing chemical munitions:
- Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Deseret Chemical Depot, Utah (completed in 1996);
- Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Anniston Army Depot, Alabama (completed in 2001);
- Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Umatilla Chemical Depot, Oregon (completed in 2001);
- Pine Bluff Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas (completed in 2002);
- Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Edgewood Chemical Activity area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland (completed in 2002);
- Newport Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana (completed in 2003);
- Pueblo Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant at Pueblo Chemical Depot, Colorado (completed in 2012); and
- Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant at Blue Grass Army Depot.
The Center was initially the program manager for Army chemical demilitarization facilities, but did not execute the construction, according to Light. Because of the complexity of the facilities and construction requirements, Light said it became increasingly important to have a single Corps entity responsible for each facility from the initial design through the completion of construction. In 1990 the Army Corps of Engineers appointed Huntsville Center as the Life Cycle Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization and in 1992 the Center officially received the chemical demilitarization facility construction mission. Huntsville Center’s mission at each location ends when construction is complete and the facilities are turned over to prepare for technology approved destruction operations.
“It really brought a construction role to Huntsville Center – something we never really had before,” Light said. “We were known for providing complex project design and program support, but not for having construction resident offices, which many of the other Corps of Engineers districts have. We were authorized and tasked to provide construction staffs and product delivery of very complex construction sites.”
A Huntsville Center employee since 1991, Light has been working on the chemical demilitarization program for more than 17 years. He said the Chemical Demilitarization program has been very successful because of its close working relationship between the Chemical Demilitarization Directorate, Engineering Directorate, and construction staffs.
At the peak of the chemical demilitarization program, Huntsville Center had about 200 employees working on design and construction of five facilities, each with fully staffed resident offices. The Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility was the first destruction facility for which the Center managed construction from start to finish — a big success for the Center.
The U.S. government also assigned the Huntsville Center as U.S. construction oversight agent for chemical demilitarization activities in the former Soviet Union in 1998 because of its established expertise in the developing designs and managing facility construction. The Center provided contract planning, management and on-site program management for construction planning and assisted in inspecting the quality of the construction to ensure the plant would successfully operate the Russian Chemical Weapons Destruction Complex at Shchuch’ye. The Center finally wrapped up the extensive mission in 2012.
For each U.S. site, Huntsville Center staff has developed initial design requirements for the highly-automated state-of-the-art disposal facilities and identified and procured appropriate equipment – to include the specialized robots that transfer materials to the appropriate processing stations at the Pueblo and Blue Grass facilities – based on the approved destruction technology. While the first five facilities used incineration technology, the technology changed to bulk neutralization at Aberdeen and Newport, neutralization followed by biotreatment at Pueblo, and neutralization followed by supercritical water oxidation at Blue Grass.
“It’s a great feeling to know that we could build such complex plants and achieve a very, very safe record – in terms of both personnel and operational safety. The safety statistics show that the U.S. Government far exceeded industry standards,” Light said. “That’s something Huntsville Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are very proud of.”
About 30 people in the Chemical Demilitarization Directorate, including a dozen or so staff at the Blue Grass plant office, are guiding the program toward completion.
“It’s challenging to be losing so many subject matter experts in this program because the Center currently has no follow-on program of the same scale,” Light said, “but we are extremely proud to be able to reflect upon the great accomplishments over the past 30 years which the Huntsville Center has contributed to make this nation and world a safer place to live and work.”