Chemical Welfare

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

Ordinarily, I'd buy all that. Military contractors screw taxpayers with the same forethought the rest of us apply to putting out the cat. But circumstances surrounding the November audit, combined with the way Rumsfeld's office employed it as a pretext for the Army's mind-bogglingly dangerous nerve-gas relocation program, suggest there's more at work here than a newfound Bush administration penchant for curbing military contractor waste.

The Army has responded unusually swiftly to its supposed Pueblo problem by essentially shutting it down. Yet the watchdog complaints were hardly damning -- in essence, the report merely said that stepped-up project specs resulting from post-9/11 terrorism concerns had ended up costing more money than old specs would have.

I asked Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the Pentagon agency created to oversee the Bechtel project in Colorado, if Bechtel might suffer, say, increased scrutiny applied to its U.S. government contracts in Iraq and elsewhere. After all, the report seems to suggest that the company committed expensive contracting improprieties.

"Absolutely not. Absolutely not," DeWeese exclaimed, more emphatically than flacks usually exclaim. "The feeling here is that Bechtel was meeting the standards of the contract fully. They were collaborating with us to meet the requirements that were in place."

Now, it's usual for PR spokespeople to defend their departments against criticism, just as DeWeese did. But it's also de rigueur for agency bosses to ignore reports from their Inspector General.

But in the case of the supposedly mishandled Bechtel chemical weapons contract, Pentagon officials jumped to action as soon as the Inspector General's report's ink was dry. Craig Williams, with the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group -- which advocates for the stockpile's safe, timely destruction -- thinks the Inspector General's report is a smoke screen to disguise the military brass' long-held desire to get rid of a hated touchy-feely alternative weapons destruction program.

"I know the people that ginned up the idea to do the report. I know what was contained in the directives. I know what their agenda is. Off the record, I know it is bullshit," Williams says.

Bush's budget proposal to Congress this week cuts the non-incinerator-based chemical weapons destruction program by more than two-thirds, essentially halting it.

I called Army spokesman Jeff Linblad. Boy, that Bechtel, it really screwed up. Will the company be punished in any meaningful way? I hoped to ask. Linblad, however, wouldn't comment on Bechtel. But he would confirm the Army's proposed solution to its supposed Bechtel problem.

"Right now I'm not authorized to discuss the scope, the width, and breadth of our evaluation," Linblad said in perfect Army-ese. "I could confirm, however, that we're doing this. I will say we're looking at relocating some of the stockpiles."

By one Strangelove-ian way of thinking, everybody wins here. America is saved the expense of building an environmentally sensitive WMD destruction plant, and it can better use the money on, say, protecting troops against the new government of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, or expanding the latest incarnation of the "Star Wars" missile-defense system.

Except for a couple of disturbing facts. For example, when you enter "Pueblo" as a starting point and "Aberdeen" (site of an incineration facility) as an end point into MapQuest.com, you get 1,731 miles of American counties, towns, and human beings in between.

There are 1,600 tons of mustard gas at Pueblo, all contained in mortars and bombs, complete with rocket motors, bursting devices, and electronic mechanisms to launch them. Even routinely moving them the few yards around the depot is an extraordinarily sensitive task, says the Chemical Weapons Working Group's Williams.

"In order to move these rockets from where they're stored, they take out three pallets from what they call the 'igloos,' where they store them under guard. That's 36 rockets. They then transport it to an enhanced, on-site container worth $1.5 million. They suck out all the air and seal it. They put it on a special flatbed vehicle, and move it at half a mile an hour from the storage facility to the incinerator. They only do it during daylight hours, and then only when it's good weather -- no wind, rain. So it's not blown around."

Far be it for me to suggest that a similar effort, mounted over thousands of miles, with thousands of tons of toxins and bombs, might attract terrorists or encourage accidents. Just the same, I called Leonard Cole, a Rutgers adjunct professor and author of the book The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Chemical and Biological Warfare, and asked him what he thought about the Pentagon's idea for cross-country poison-gas musical chairs. Terrorism is the least of our worries, he said cheerily, then told me a story.

"A month ago, chlorine was being shipped by train through South Carolina. There was an accident, some of the canisters were punctured, there was leakage of the chlorine, and nine people were dead. Areas near the train wreck were contaminated. We don't think of chlorine as an agent we'd have in serious quantities as a chemical weapon. Instead we have mustard agents and nerve agents. Either of them, if they were to leak through canisters, a pinhead drop of, say, sarin -- that's the one the Tokyo cult used in the subway -- a single tiny drop of that will kill you in 60 seconds. If you inhale vapors, it will kill you sooner. VX, meanwhile, is not only more potent, it's more long-lasting."

I would expect so. The Army seems to make efficiency a priority when it comes to chemical weapons.

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