The U.S. Army has resumed destroying obsolete chemical weapons at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Program plant after a nine-month shutdown for repairs.
In June officials said the highly automated $4.5 billion plant began a gradual restart of its operations. At the time it was reported that a return to full operation would take approximately 60 days.
The plant, which began operations in 2016, is located on the same 23,000-acre facility as the Pueblo Chemical Depot. It is there that operations to destroy 780,000 shells containing over 2,500 tons of liquid mustard agent began and are now continuing.
The depot, which is a base for the U.S. Army began as a storage facility in 1942 for materials and ammunition.
A Presidential Budget Request expedited the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Program (PCAPP) in 2010. A testing period led to what were planned to be full scale destruction operations during 2014. The original timeframe for the project had a deadline of April 2012 - set by the Chemical Weapons Convention, but it is estimated now that the process of destroying chemical weapons along with cleanup operations and full closure may not come until 2020.
The process of destroying chemical weapons includes neutralization of all facilities with a hot caustic solution followed by a bacterial bio-treatment aimed to destroy any remaining traces of mustard or blister agent.
Since those operations began, according to sources, several problems have sprung up including a leak in a storage tank and vibrations that threatened to damage pumps. Several operations stopped last September of 2017 with the plant having destroyed more than 43,000 shells before the shutdown.
The Pueblo Chemical Depot is located in Pueblo County Colorado approximately 14 miles east of the city of Pueblo. The 23,000 acre facility - which covers 36 square miles - is found in an arid section of southern Colorado. The area around the Pueblo Chemical Depot is one of the driest in Colorado as it receives an average of only 14 inches of precipitation annually and regularly experiences triple digit temperatures in the summer months.
Though established as a storage facility, the mission of the Pueblo Chemical Depot has changed over the decades. Cold War era policies turned it into a major maintenance and repair facility for Army Pershing Missile Systems. The facility continued operating under that mission at full capacity well into the Vietnam era.
It wasn’t until the U.S. and USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (better known as the INF Treaty) in 1987 that the depot began to dismantle and destroy munitions starting with the 169 Pershing IA missiles and 111 Pershing II missiles that were in storage at the facility. It was at the Pueblo Depot Activity Facility and at the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant in Texas that those were destroyed.
As the Cold War began to subside and calls to denuclearize grew louder, the Department Of Defense recommended the Pueblo Depot Activity Facility be realigned to meet the growing need for chemical weapons storage and destruction. In 1990 the Pueblo Depot Activity Facility was renamed the Pueblo Chemical Depot and its primary mission was changed to the storage of United States chemical and biological weapons.
As a storage facility, the Pueblo Chemical Weapons Depot is one of nine facilities tasked with the mission of storing the United States’ chemical weapons arsenal. Its stockpile of 2,611 tons of mustard chemical agents in 780,000 individual munitions - prior to 2016 when the destruction of those munitions began to take place - accounted for about 7 percent of the United States chemical weapons arsenal.