The United States still has more than 3,000 tons of chemical weapons
It agreed to destroy all of its stockpile in the 1990s
It expects the remaining 10% to be eliminated in another decade
Syria has a year to get rid of its estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons
Watch Drew Griffin’s report on the Utah project tonight on The Situation Room at 5 p.m. ET.
Syria has been given a year to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal, or face the threat of a U.S. military strike. Yet it may come as a surprise that the United States has still not destroyed all of its massive supply of deadly nerve agents.
In fact, neither has Russia. Both Washington and Moscow signed the Chemical Weapons Convention of the 1990s, which forbid the use, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
And both countries missed the convention’s extended deadline last year to destroy all of their chemical weapons.
This fact was highlighted during Friday’s ceremony awarding the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is helping to eliminate the Syrian army’s stockpiles of poison gas.
“Certain states have not observed the deadline, which was April 2012, for destroying their chemical weapons,” the Nobel committee noted in its official announcement of the coveted peace prize. “This applies especially to the USA and Russia.”
The United States estimates it will be at least another decade before it completes destruction of the remaining 10% of its chemical weapons, estimated at more than 3,100 tons. Russia has more than five times that amount left to destroy, according to the OPCW. While it’s unclear exactly how many chemical weapons Syria has, U.S. intelligence and other estimates put its chemical weapons stockpile at about 1,000 tons stored in dozens of sites.
The United Nations has given Syria until mid-2014 to destroy that arsenal and U.N. weapons inspectors have expressed optimism that this deadline can be reached, despite having to dart in and out of battle zones amid Syria’s bloody civil war.
Wade Mathews, who once worked on the U.S. project to destroy its chemical stockpile, isn’t so sure that Syria can meet that deadline. He said the U.S. effort took billions of dollars, the cooperation of many levels of government – including the military – and a safe environment to make sure the destruction was done safely.
“We had a coordinated effort, we had a government that insisted that it be done safely and that the community was protected,” said Mathews, who now works with the Tooele County emergency management team, which makes sure the Utah community is aware of the project. “I don’t think those things are in place in Syria.”
Mathews briefly worked at the Desert Army Chemical Depot in Tooele, a desert town bracketed by mountains outside of Salt Lake City where 43% of the nation’s chemical weapons were once stored. The rest was stored at eight other sites around the country.
The weapons were first warehoused at the Tooele facility in 1942, during World War II, and grew over time. At one point, the United States once housed the majority of its chemical arsenal –13,000 tons – and a million munitions at the facility.
Tooele was chosen because military leaders figured Japanese warplanes could hit the West Coast but not fly over the mountains to Utah without refueling, said Richard Trujillo, who spent 40 years working at the facility.
“There was mustard gas originally … a lot of smoke-type bombs, smoke pods,” Trujillo recalled. Then, in the 1950s, a lot of nerve gas was transported to the facility, he said.
Eventually, the United States signed the international chemical treaty in the 1990s and got serious about getting rid of the chemicals in a way that would not harm the environment or the people working at the plant or living in the area. While the process was slow and expensive, Trujillo said there was not a single casualty despite the volatility of some of the chemicals.