The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Nerve Gas Leak Detectors Inoperative for Years

Army Report Confirms Blue Grass Chemical Weapons Depot Was "Flying Blind"


In a newly released report, the U.S. Army has admitted that the
nerve gas leak monitors at a major Kentucky chemical weapons depot did
not work for nearly two years. Managers at the Blue Grass Army Depot,
located outside of Richmond, 30 miles south of Lexington, had rendered
the detectors inoperative and the problem was finally remedied only
after a whistleblower was forced to file a complaint, according to an
Inspector General investigation posted today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The Army Inspector General (IG) report, dated February 10,
2006, confirms the chief concerns raised by Donald Van Winkle, a
chemical weapons monitoring operator at Blue Grass that -

  • Leak detectors were improperly removed from inside the igloos holding highly lethal VX nerve gas;
  • As
    a result, from September 2003 to August 2005 (after Van Winkle came
    forward), Blue Grass had no means, other than visual observation, to
    determine whether the odorless, colorless nerve gas was seeping from
    the rockets in which the agent is stored; and
  • These changes
    were contrary to Army protocols and safety standards but only minor
    disciplinary action was taken against the responsible managers.

The IG concluded that despite the lack of working leak detectors
there was no evidence of worker or public exposure to escaped
chemicals, citing the "historically low rate of leakers" in VX nerve
gas rockets and warheads. The IG withheld the report from PEER Freedom
of Information Act requests for more than three years due to "an
ongoing US Army Criminal Investigation Command investigation". PEER has
requested information on the status of that criminal investigation.

"At Blue Grass, the Army was flying blind in protecting its chemical
weapons stockpile," stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein.
"Incredibly, the Army's attitude appears to be that since no workers or
civilians were killed then no harm no foul."

At the time this report was being finalized, the whistleblower Van
Winkle was removed from Blue Grass after being stripped of his
certification to work with chemical weapons because, according to the
base command, he showed "signs of behavior of a disgruntled employee
and ... lack of a positive attitude".

"In the Army, senior officials who screw up get slapped on the wrist
but whistleblowers get banished," added Dinerstein, who is leading Van
Winkle's legal effort to restore his chemical weapons program
certification, noting that the IG report contains information at
variance with sworn testimony from Blue Grass officials in the Van
Winkle litigation. "Given how this case was handled, no wonder major
problems go unreported."

While the Army IG did not substantiate related operational troubles
at Blue Grass, in late 2007, the Kentucky Department of Environmental
Protection confirmed many of Van Winkle's other disclosures. Unlike the
IG, the state agency acknowledged that there is no way of knowing
whether there were leaks during the period that the monitors were
inoperative. It also took the unusual step of issuing notices of
violation to the Blue Grass Depot.

Read the Army Inspector General Report on Blue Grass

View 2009 Army claim of "ongoing" criminal investigation

Look at the Kentucky DEP citations and report

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.