WASHINGTON — — A team of chemists and engineers from Aberdeen Proving Ground has begun to neutralize chemicals from Syria's weapons stocks, the Pentagon said Monday.
The work is taking place aboard the container ship MV Cape Ray under heavy security at an undisclosed location in international waters. The ship left Gioia Tauro, Italy, with 600 tons of chemicals, including the World War I blister agent sulfur mustard and the sarin precursor DF.
The team of some 64 civilians from the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, who developed a special system for neutralizing the chemicals aboard a ship, had waited months to get started.
If all goes well, the work will take about 60 days, Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in Washington on Monday. Weather could affect the process.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad agreed to surrender the weapons last year amid international outrage over a chemical attack near Damascus that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians. The attack was among the bloodiest in a 4-year-old conflict between the regime and rebel fighters that has left more than 100,000 dead and displaced more than a quarter of the Syrian population.
The Edgewood specialists intend to use equipment they designed and built specifically for the mission. Officials have described the first-ever shipboard destruction of chemical weapons as a potential model for future missions.
The so-called Priority 1 chemicals to be neutralized by the Edgewood team are the most dangerous of Syria's weapons stocks. Other materials are to be destroyed or rendered harmless at commercial facilities in the United States, Britain and Finland.
Russia and China provided security as the materials were transported from Syria to Italy aboard Danish and Norwegian ships. Representatives from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in the Hague, are monitoring the operation.
The Edgewood specialists have decades of experience in destroying chemical weapons — but always at highly secure and often remote facilities, on land, built for the purpose. Now, for the first time, they're doing the work aboard ship, on the open sea.
The system they have designed is based on the technology they used to destroy the U.S. stock of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.
The Cape Ray has been fitted with two units of the new Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. Operators do not handle the materials directly; the chemicals and their neutralizing agents are mixed in a closed container, and the resulting effluent is to be discharged into closed containers. The operators wear masks with air hoses.
The Edgewood team was expecting 540 tons of DF and 26 tons of mustard. Both materials are neutralized in the same way: They are mixed with water.
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The liquid that is produced is acidic. Team members plan to add chemicals to bring the pH level above neutral, creating a caustic material that some have likened to Drano.
In that form, they say, it will be safer to store and transport to its eventual disposal site. Germany and Finland have agreed to take the waste.
Officials say safety, not speed, will be their priority. They have said the operation will show that there is now a safe, environmentally responsible way to dispose of chemical weapons that can be deployed anywhere in the world.
The Edgewood specialists had been waiting since January while Syria missed several deadlines to deliver the materials. Under the initial timeline set last year by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the destruction was to have been completed by June 30.
Syrian officials blamed the delays on the challenges of transporting the chemicals out of the country amid heavy fighting.