Chemical Welfare

The government accuses Bechtel of mismanagement as a smoke screen to avoid paying for alternative means of destroying deadly gases

When Bechtel Corp. inflates federal infrastructure contracts, manipulates politicians into serving the company's economic ends, and egregiously fails to comply with Army project specifications such that mountains of aging nerve gas bombs spend excessive time deteriorating on military compounds, I don't usually leap to the San Francisco construction giant's defense.

But this time is different. The aforementioned accusations, detailed in a November 2004 report by the government watchdog Office of Inspector General, appear to be more an example of sophisticated scapegoating than whistle-blowing.

When examined in combination with a portion of President Bush's proposed federal budget, announced to Congress this week, that deals with destroying America's chemical weapons stockpile, and with a military directive quietly issued at Christmastime that orders "studying" the possibility of shipping chemical weapons stockpiles across the country, the Inspector General's report appears less an instance of Bechtel's corporate wrongdoing and more an example of deep cynicism emanating from the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

It appears to provide cover for a Rummy plan to save money for favored military projects by shipping carloads of deadly mustard gas and even deadlier sarin and VX nerve gas across hundreds of miles of U.S. roads and railways. In this cross-country game of musical chairs, thousands of tons of chemical weapons would ship to any of a half-dozen plants with the capacity to incinerate them. The proposal would save money by reducing the cost of building new, safe plants where the weapons sit -- while exposing millions of Americans to the risk of death by blistering or paralysis in the event of a rail or freeway accident or terrorist attack.

The Pentagon laid the groundwork for this scheme through thin-seeming charges detailing Bechtel's supposed mishandling of a contract to build a green chemical weapons destruction plant in Pueblo, Colo.

During last week's State of the Union address, Bush said he accepts "responsibility to future generations to leave them an America that is safe from danger." Perhaps now that Bush's 9/11-themed first term has ended, he feels it's time to take unprecedented actions to endanger us.

Since armies first got the idea, during World War I, to release clouds of excruciating-death-causing gas upon each other, the United States has stockpiled mountains of weaponized toxins at military bases all over the country. By 1985, when the Pentagon promised Congress it would start getting rid of these weapons of mass destruction, the stockpile had reached 31,000 tons. Building the required half-dozen incineration plants would cost $1.83 billion, the Army then said. In 1997, America ratified the international Chemical Weapons Convention, pledging to eliminate the arsenal by 2007, with a possible extension to 2012. But the project has proved far more expensive and time-consuming than the military planned. By last year the Army had destroyed only 28 percent of the stockpile, with a projected cost of $24 billion to complete the task. Back in 1997, Congress had responded to complaints about the dangers of poison gas incineration by authorizing the Pentagon to build plants to destroy the materiel using more benign methods. The chemicals would be rendered harmless by stewing them in hot water, then feeding the residue to special bacteria. Some military brass, however, have apparently viewed this approach as a touchy-feely waste of time. Records dating from the alternative weapons neutralization program's inception show Pentagon officials repeatedly attempting to derail it.

It would seem there's an element of the military nostalgic for the golden, 1900-1980s era of WMD development, storage, and handling. Back then it was OK to test, say, biological weapons by dumping them over U.S. cities, then secretly monitoring how they dispersed through the population, as the Army did with the biotoxin serratia marcescens over San Francisco in 1950. It was fine to visit a nuclear holocaust upon Pacific atolls and to send truckloads of population-threatening biological and chemical weapons on whatever cross-country relocation expedition Army warehouse managers deemed expedient. As efficient as this last policy may have seemed to military depot staff, civilian America eventually went about trying to phase out this carefree era. In 1995 Congress outlawed interstate transport of chemical warfare agents. And in 1996, it ordered the Pentagon to come up with ways to get rid of poison gas other than burning it, after people living near the incinerators protested chemical weapons vaporizing into their air.

In 2002, the Department of Defense awarded Bechtel a contract to develop a plant in Pueblo to destroy chemical weapons without burning. Given that the Army was behind schedule to meet the 2007 treaty deadline to destroy the weapons, and given the national post-9/11 preoccupation with terrorist targets, the Army said the facility should hasten the weapons destruction schedule set in 1985.

Four months after awarding the contract -- but before Bechtel had completed its design studies based on the stepped-up directive -- the Defense Department told Congress the project would cost $1.5 billion. In May 2004, however, initial plant specifications from Bechtel showed the revised Colorado plant would actually cost $2.6 billion.

Early last year Pentagon brass complained to the press about the supposed cost overruns, and acting Defense Under Secretary Michael Wynne instructed the Inspector General to investigate. In November the report came out complaining that facilities had been built larger than requested in the original contract, that the plant wouldn't have the weapons destroyed by the treaty deadline, and that Bechtel had improperly leaked to Colorado politicians news of impending funding cuts to the Pueblo program. On Dec. 21 Wynne announced a new "funding profile" all but eliminating the Pueblo project, and ordered that the Army explore shipping mustard gas from Pueblo to incineration plants elsewhere in the country, the idea being to save money by utilizing plants that had nearly finished burning up on-site weapons by bringing in new gas bombs from elsewhere. Soon after, Bechtel announced it would cut 200 employees from its San Francisco headquarters, citing Pueblo cutbacks.

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