Mustard-gas leak detected in Denver Army base

Published 25 August 2009

No emergency at Army Pueblo Chemical Depot; the depot has 780,000 mustard-gas-filled projectiles that are about 60 years old; the 2-foot-long artillery shells were brought to the Pueblo depot in 1952; crews investigate

Mustard-gas vapor has been detected inside a munitions storage facility at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot, which houses 105 mm projectiles, Army officials said Monday. Denver Post’s Howard Pankratz writes that
the Army said that both state and county officials have been notified and that a crew will enter the igloo-type structure probably today to look for leakage. “We know we have a problem in the structure,” said Chuck Sprague, spokesman for the Pueblo depot. “However, there is no emergency. We are proceeding with normal operating procedures.”

Sprague said the depot has 780,000 mustard-gas-filled projectiles that are about 60 years old. The 2-foot-long artillery shells were brought to the Pueblo depot in 1952.

Sprague said a new plant at the depot, designed to destroy the projectiles, will be completed in 2014. Destruction of the mustard-gas shells should be completed by 2017.

Ross Vincent, chairman of the Sangre de Cristo Group of the Sierra Club and a longtime depot watchdog, said that the leak emphasizes the need to destroy the gas as soon as possible. “Leaks like this happen from time to time,” Vincent said. … The gas presents a risk to local communities, a risk to workers at the depot, and a terrorist could breach security and wreak havoc.”

He said that the destruction of the mustard gas could have been completed by 2012 if, a few years ago, the Pentagon had not put the brakes on the construction of a facility at the Pueblo depot to destroy the gas.

Some in the Pentagon thought it might be more cost effective to move the weapons to an existing plant, such as the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah, for destruction. Vincent said the decision to build the plant at the Pueblo depot is now back on track because of a Defense Department allocation of $550 million. The ground has been broken.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Monday that the leak was detected at a time when the state has asked the Army to increase the monitoring of the 98 igloos containing mustard gas.

Instead of quarterly monitoring, the state now wants weekly monitoring, said Doug Knappe, the health department’s permitting and compliance-assistance unit leader.

The vapor was detected by a laboratory vehicle designed to analyze air inside the storage facility from the outside. The vehicle does this through a small air line that penetrates into the earth-covered building, according to the Army.

Technicians are attaching a charcoal filter to an air vent on the back of the building to clean contaminated air inside the igloo.