Skip to main content

The United States is still getting rid of its chemical weapons

By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston, CNN Investigations
October 14, 2013 -- Updated 1656 GMT (0056 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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

Tooele, Utah (CNN) -- 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.

Syria's chemical arsenal at a glance

The storage igloos at the Utah depot where munitions were stored and the destruction facility, in the background.
The storage igloos at the Utah depot where munitions were stored and the destruction facility, in the background.

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.

Former inspector: Timeline not practical
Syria said to be 'cooperative'
Weapons inspectors face difficult task

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.

"You know the whole task is nothing short of miraculous in my mind," Trujillo said. "And I was part of it."

Today there are no weapons at the Tooele facility. The process of safely getting rid of these chemicals and munitions took 16 years, and was finally completed last year. Workers there will soon begin the process of dismantling the plants needed to do the job.

Yet, there are still more than 3,000 tons of chemical weapons left in the United States, stored at two remaining facilities at Pueblo, Colorado, and Bluegrass, Kentucky. The majority is in Pueblo, where officials plan to start in 2015 destroying 2,600 tons of mustard blister chemicals stored in projectiles in liquid form. The process is expected to take four years.

At the Bluegrass plant outside Lexington, Kentucky, there are 523 tons of mustard agent, VX and sarin nerve agents. Officials predict the job of destroying that arsenal, which is slated to start in 2020, will be completed in 2023.

Where is Assad hiding chemical weapons?
A convoy of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa on Tuesday, October 1. Inspectors from the Netherlands-based watchdog arrived in Syria to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. A convoy of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa on Tuesday, October 1. Inspectors from the Netherlands-based watchdog arrived in Syria to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
Suspected chemical attack in Syria
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
Photos: Suspected chemical attack in Syria Photos: Suspected chemical attack in Syria

The world's attention turned to Syria's chemical weapons stockpile after the United States and other countries accused Syria of using chemical weapons in an August 21 attack outside Damascus, a strike Washington says killed more than 1,400 people -- including many women and children. Syria denies the accusation and says its own troops have faced poison gas attacks by rebel forces in the civil war that began in 2011.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council later voted unanimously to require Syria to eliminate its arsenal of chemical weapons or face consequences. The U.N. team in Syria overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons says the Assad regime is cooperating.

Securing Syria's chemical weapons won't be easy

It's unclear how these weapons can be found, secured, and safely destroyed by next year in the middle of a protracted conflict, considering that it is expected to take the United States three years to destroy half of the chemical weapons that Syria is estimated to have -- and that's in a remote part of Kentucky with no civil war.

Asked about that, the U.S. Department of Defense told CNN in a written statement that it's "inaccurate to draw parallels between the U.S. chemical demilitarization program and the international cooperation that will be required to destroy the chemical stockpile in Syria."

Defected general says Syria will never give up chemical weapons

CNN's Elizabeth M. Nunez contributed to this report.

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
A $23.8 million settlement follows a three-year CNN investigation.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Records of dead veterans were changed to hide how many people died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital, a whistle-blower told CNN.
June 22, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
Albuquerque police shot a homeless man in the back and killed him, and it was all caught on gruesome detail in a police video.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
A ship's captain, kidnapped by pirates in 2013, says the money used to pay his ransom went to Boko Haram.
Share your tips or story ideas with CNN's team of investigative reporters and producers. Click on the link or go to cnn.com/investigate.
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 0138 GMT (0938 HKT)
The director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system and two others have been placed on administrative leave amid claims of a secret waiting list for care.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0119 GMT (0919 HKT)
At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forcefully stood by his account that he only found out about notorious traffic lane closures after they appeared in the media.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 1944 GMT (0344 HKT)
Records show problems with the Carnival Triumph more than a year before its ill-fated cruise earlier this year.
January 31, 2014 -- Updated 0234 GMT (1034 HKT)
U.S. veterans are dying because of delays in diagnosis and treatment at VA hospitals.
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
The former president of Shell Oil USA didn't candy-coat it: America's political fund-raising system, he said, amounts to legalized extortion.
November 16, 2013 -- Updated 1717 GMT (0117 HKT)
Consumers left angry and confused after the botched Obamacare rollout now have something else to worry about: misleading letters from insurance companies.
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 1838 GMT (0238 HKT)
The president of an advertising firm that lost a $25 million contract said her team was asked to feature New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in ads promoting the Jersey Shore.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
White House officials have pressured insurance industry executives to keep quiet amid mounting criticism over Obamacare's rollout, insurance industry sources told CNN.
Lawmakers set hearings on alleged fraud in America's largest Medicaid system exposed by The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Felons are supposed to be blocked from running California drug rehab clinics. That didn't stop Alexander Ferdman.
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 2314 GMT (0714 HKT)
So much for a "clean" bill. The measure passed by Congress to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling also contains some goodies and gifts tucked into the 35-page bill.
Victoria Byers told rehab counselors she didn't do drugs. Whistle-blowers say a clinic billed taxpayers to treat her anyway.
CNN's Drew Griffin confronts California health officials about alleged fraud at Medicaid rehab clinics.
Thousands of charities actually spend billions helping marketing executives get rich.
All evidence pointed police to one conclusion: A priest had killed a beautiful 25-year-old schoolteacher.
The same day a documentary featuring a government whistle-blower premiered, the IRS told him he was being audited. Coincidence?
An American father fights for the return of his sons who were illegally taken to Egypt.
A surprise inspection by the Centers for Disease Control has resulted in a failing grade for one of the plushest cruise ships afloat.
A white Mississippi teen faces 27 years in prison after killing a black man walking along a rural highway. The victim's family calls it a hate crime.
Critics say a federal data system that costs $1 million-plus offers very little help to authorities who investigate, identify and track hate crimes.
ADVERTISEMENT