The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons outlined the mission in December.

Syria is responsible for transporting hazardous materials from 12 sites to the port of Latakia and loading it onto ships volunteered by Denmark and Norway.

Russia is to provide security. An emergency response team from Finland will stand by in case of an accident. China has sent ambulances.

When the ships are loaded, Denmark and Norway are to take the chemicals to Gioia Tauro to be transferred to the Cape Ray.

The 648-foot ship was built by Japan in the 1970s for Saudi Arabia to haul offshore oil rigs. Acquired by the U.S. Maritime Administration in 1994, it is now used to move large pieces of equipment. It is operated by a crew of 35 mariners.

The Edgewood team based the new Field Deployable Hydrolysis System on the technology used to destroy the U.S. stock of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.

"What we have on board the Cape Ray is basically a shrunk-down, transportable, modular version of the facility that was right here," said Brian O'Donnell, a chemist at Edgewood.

The team is expecting 540 tons of DF, a precursor to sarin, and 26 tons of mustard, a World War I blister agent.

Syria has also declared 130 tons of Solution A, which is used to make the nerve agent VX, but it is not clear whether it will be destroyed on the Cape Ray or sent directly to a hazardous-waste disposal facility.

Mustard and DF are destroyed in the same way: They are mixed with water.

The resulting effluent is acidic. Team members will add chemicals to bring the pH level above neutral, creating a caustic liquid that Edgewood chemist Rob Malone likens to Drano. That is intended to make it safer to store and transport.

That product, while no longer a warfare agent, remains a hazardous waste. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is weighing bids from companies in several countries, including the United States, to dispose of it.

Officials stressed that no materials would be dumped into the sea.

Joseph Wienand, technical director at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, said team members would not handle the materials directly. The chemicals are to be mixed in a closed container, and the resulting effluent is to be discharged into closed containers. Members are to wear masks with air hoses.

"The entire operation was designed for the safety of the personnel and the environment," Wienand said.

Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds in England, said the process "looks really good."

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, he said, "looks really helpful, largely because of the sheer quantity of material it can deal with in a day. ... It is so heartening to see so many countries working together to remove the chemical weapons."

The precise location where the team will carry out the work has yet to be determined. The Cape Ray is to be protected by an international force that will include the U.S. Navy.

O'Donnell expressed confidence in the security arrangements.

"We're looking inward," he said. "We have people who are looking outward for us."

Two 12-hour shifts of workers are to operate two hydrolysis systems 24 hours a day, six days a week. Factoring in the possibility that rough seas could force work stoppages, officials expect the operation to take 120 days.

Spencer said that "safety trumps schedule."

"We are not tied specifically to a schedule," he said. "Safety will determine how much and how fast we process."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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