Foot-draggers: U.S. and Russia slow to destroy own chemical weapons amid Syria smackdown

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Not in my backyard

An investigation by The Washington Times, meanwhile, uncovered a host of reasons for why the U.S. has failed to meet the 2012 deadline set by the treaty for destroying the weapons.

Nonproliferation analysts note that Washington and Moscow over the past decade has focused less on their own stocks than on neutralizing chemical weapons in more volatile corners of the world — namely Libya, Albania and Iraq.

But on the U.S. front, there is also a classic not in my backyard — or “NIMBY” — element at play, said James Lewis, the head of communications for the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

When Congress signed the ban 20 years ago, said Mr. Lewis, it triggered a backlash among American voters in states where the stockpiles were secretly maintained.

“No one wants a truck of sarin going down their street,” he said, explaining how Congress subsequently embarked on the delicate and yearslong enterprise of funding and implementing chemical weapons incineration and neutralization programs that met the standards of U.S. environmental law — while also not backfiring on the local political front.

“I think we bit off a little more than we could chew given the stockpiles we had built,” Mr. Lewis said. “Congressmen have to go home from Washington and they can’t go home and say, ‘Oh, guess what, we just put a chemical weapons disposal facility right there.’ If they do that, they’re not going to get re-elected.”

From Oregon to Indiana, Utah and Maryland, such politics have been playing out for two decades in eight states, with billions of federal dollars pumped toward the expensive process of dismantling the U.S. arsenal without creating environmental hazards for citizens of those states.

Cold War pork barrel?

Published reports show U.S. Army estimates of $28 billion to cover the total cost of destroying the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile — a process not anticipated to be completed before 2021.

That the effort is mired with complications has been known for years in Washington. A 2003 report by the Government Accountability Office said it was in “turmoil,” lacked “stable leadership at the upper management levels,” and noted that the U.S. was expected to miss “milestones because of schedule delays due to environmental, safety, community relations, and funding issues.”

Analysts approached for this story downplayed the notion that the slowness with which the U.S. has gone about destroying its stockpile might be a result of a Cold War-style dance between Washington and Moscow in which neither wishes to be the first to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.

That the business of weapons destruction might also be slow because it serves as a so-called pork barrel issue for states where the stockpiles exist is also unlikely. “I don’t think there any politicians eager to hang their hat on this as a way of bringing money into their district,” Mr. Lewis said.

Significant progress in the program has been made by last year. Operations at six sites have been completed, and the remaining 10 percent of the original stockpile is now housed in two states — Kentucky and Colorado.

What’s left in those states is slated to be destroyed through a highly technical process known as “oxidation,” a method deemed environmentally safer but more expensive than the previously used technique of incineration.

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About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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