Mustard-Gas Leak Detected in Pueblo Chemical Depot

No emergency at Army Pueblo Chemical Depot; crews to investigate

Photo: This astronaut photograph illustrates the unusual man-made landscape of the Pueblo Chemical Depot located near the city of Pueblo, Colorado. The depot was built during World War II by the U.S. Army to house and ship ammunition needed for war efforts, and this role transitioned to missile repair and maintenance during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The current use of the depot is to house chemical munitions, but changes are underway by the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency to destroy these munitions and make the site environmentally safe for reuse. (NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.)

August 25, 2009
By Howard Pankratz
The Denver Post

Mustard-gas vapor has been detected inside a munitions storage facility at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot, which houses 105mm projectiles, Army officials said Monday.

The Army said that both state and county officials have been notified and that a crew will enter the igloo-type structure probably today to look for leakage.

"We know we have a problem in the structure," said Chuck Sprague, spokesman for the Pueblo depot. "However, there is no emergency. We are proceeding with normal operating procedures."

Sprague said the depot has 780,000 mustard-gas-filled projectiles that are about 60 years old. The 2-foot-long artillery shells were brought to the Pueblo depot in 1952.

Sprague said a new plant at the depot, designed to destroy the projectiles, will be completed in 2014. Destruction of the mustard-gas shells should be completed by 2017.

Ross Vincent, chairman of the Sangre de Cristo Group of the Sierra Club and a longtime depot watchdog, said that the leak emphasizes the need to destroy the gas as soon as possible.

"Leaks like this happen from time to time," Vincent said. ". . . The gas presents a risk to local communities, a risk to workers at the depot, and a terrorist could breach security and wreak havoc."

He said that the destruction of the mustard gas could have been completed by 2012 if, a few years ago, the Pentagon had not put the brakes on the construction of a facility at the Pueblo depot to destroy the gas.

Some in the Pentagon thought it might be more cost effective to move the weapons to an existing plant, such as the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah, for destruction.

But Vincent said the decision to build the plant at the Pueblo depot is now back on track because of a Defense Department allocation of $550 million. The ground has been broken.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Monday that the leak was detected at a time when the state has asked the Army to increase the monitoring of the 98 igloos containing mustard gas.

Instead of quarterly monitoring, the state now wants weekly monitoring, said Doug Knappe, the health department's permitting and compliance-assistance unit leader.

The vapor was detected by a laboratory vehicle designed to analyze air inside the storage facility from the outside. The vehicle does this through a small air line that penetrates into the earth-covered building, according to the Army.

Technicians are attaching a charcoal filter to an air vent on the back of the building to clean contaminated air inside the igloo.