After 10 years of research, the Army is fine-tuning and preparing to field several mobile systems designed to detect and destroy chemical materiel, from shells to soldier training kits, that turn up at bases and former defense sites around the United States.
These are not items included in the military's eight chemical weapons stockpile sites. But they are just as dangerous, say officials with the program that has developed the systems, a program based at Aberdeen Proving Ground. About 200 sites in the nation are thought to be home to chemical munitions, while chemical agent training kits have been found everywhere from burial pits to dusty closet shelves.
"It's the vision we had in '92-'93, and we're there," said Charles Heyman of the Nonstockpile Chemical Materiel Program.
In the early 1990s, Congress directed the Department of Defense to examine the problem and develop methods of dealing with the discovery of munitions and how they should be destroyed, he said.
The nonstockpile program began to look at ways to treat these hazardous items on site, Heyman said, and to develop neutralization methods, which use hot water and other chemicals to break dangerous chemical agents into less toxic, more easily treatable waste.
Neutralization was chosen over incineration, he said, because of community concerns about burning munitions and chemicals.
In communities with stockpiles, the development of these transportable units could help allay community fears that their back yards might become "dumping grounds" for nonstockpile items found in other states, said Elizabeth Crowe of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, an organization opposed to burning chemical weapons, of Berea, Ky.
The ability to destroy these items safely on site can reduce incidents of detonations in open air and of risky movement of weapons that could be dangerous and unstable, she said.
William Brankowitz, deputy product manager for the nonstockpile program, said the systems' capabilities are limited to certain chemicals and sizes of munitions, and declined to elaborate, citing homeland security concerns.
But the step forward is an important one, he said.
"We want to do something people are comfortable with," Brankowitz said. "Nobody's happy with this [equipment] showing up in their back yard."
Brankowitz said the devices will allow the military to consider work at sites that they couldn't before. "I think we'll be busy over the next couple of years," he said.
The mobile units will be manned by government and contract workers, said Heyman. The Technical Escort Unit, the military's first-responders to nuclear, chemical and biological emergencies, will work closely with them, he said, as will workers from the Edgewood Biological Chemical Center. Both are based at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The mobile systems have three key components:
The Single CAIS Assess and Neutralization System (SCANS) looks rather like a plastic crock pot that is small enough to fit on a table and can neutralize agents found in chemical agent training kits.
Those kits, known as chemical agent identifying sets (CAIS), were used to train soldiers and sailors from the 1920s till the 1960s in the identification, handling and decontamination of chemical agents.
The kits were widely produced and used, nonstockpile officials say, and in the 1980s alone, about 21,000 kits were destroyed.
A glass bottle or vial from one of the kits can be placed in the SCANS, along with a reagent to break it down. The plastic SCANS case is sealed and the two bottles broken from the outside with a rod.
The SCANS is expected to be ready for field use by the end of the year.
The Explosive Destruction System (EDS) is built onto a trailer and allows a small team of workers to load munitions into a destruction chamber where a weapon can be detonated and the agent neutralized in a matter of hours. The neutralized agent is pumped out of the chamber into drums, which can be handled by a certified hazardous waste processor.
The first generation of EDS has been used successfully to destroy found weapons at Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado and Spring Valley in Washington, D.C.
Testing on a second-generation EDS that can handle larger munitions is expected to begin early next year. But EDS cannot treat all munitions or agents, officials say.
The Mobile Munitions Assessment System (MMAS) is a cutting-edge lab on wheels that has been used since the mid-1990s to go into the field and quickly assess discovered chemical weapons using digital cameras, X-rays, and other technology including isotopic neutron spectroscopy - which uses gamma rays to map the energy spectrum of materials inside shells or other containers. The material can then be identified using a computerized spectral library.
Three of these units are to be deployed around the country, including a second-phase MMAS built into a 35-foot motor home, which will be used on the East Coast.
APG officials say the mobile systems, especially the MMAS, will also have a role in homeland defense.
Hal Yates, a senior community-involvement coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency in this region, said he also hopes to see the mobile units used to destroy commercial hazards when possible. He worked on a project in West Virginia in the 1980s that required evacuating the tiny town of Nitro so hydrogen cyanide canisters could be destroyed in the open.
Being able to use EDS for such a project would be safer and more effective, he said.
Yates was among a group of state and federal regulators who met at APG last week to learn about the mobile units. The nonstockpile program is planning more meetings with local officials to share the technology that is planned for use at APG in the future, and could be used with first-responders and other groups, said Louise Dyson, public outreach officer for the program.
Crowe said the new technology is a first "good faith effort" and the Chemical Weapons Working Group would be working to advocate more research and development on mobile unit technology.
"They still don't know what's going to be found," Crowe said. "Somebody could call next week with a whole new problem that warrants a different approach."