Washington, DC — The monitoring devices to detect leaks of deadly VX agent from the Bluegrass Army Depot were inoperative for many months, according to an affidavit from a chemical weapons monitoring operator released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER is asking for a Defense Department inspection of the Kentucky facility.
Donald Van Winkle operates air-monitoring units designed to detect leaks of chemical warfare agents stored inside “igloos” at Bluegrass Army Depot. According to Van Winkle’s sworn statement, the monitors to detect VX agent, however, had been configured so as to be ineffective until very recently. In his affidavit, Van Winkle reveals that –
- The supervisor of lab operations admitted in a meeting with more than a dozen employees ordering the change in monitors to increase ease of access even though it was known that the change would compromise leak detection;
- Conversion pads in the monitors have an effective life of between ten and thirty days but are often changed far less frequently; and
- Air monitoring equipment at the depot are at times so poorly maintained that the units are not fit for operation.
VX is a highly lethal nerve agent. It is stored in the form of an amber-colored, oily liquid that is heavier than air and has low volatility unless temperatures are high. VX can be readily absorbed by inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. Persons whose clothing has been in contact with the nerve agent can contaminate their rescuers by direct contact or through release of vapor trapped by garments.
“A minuscule droplet of VX agent produces death in just minutes, so the consequences of an undetected VX leak could be devastating,” stated PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, whose organization is representing Van Winkle. “Of equal concern is that the culture at Bluegrass Army Depot tolerates lapses in monitoring protocol and discourages reports of problems.”
On August 3, 2005, Bluegrass Army Depot removed Van Winkle’s clearance to work in areas containing chemical agents “based upon allegations of suspect queries to crew members” that Van Winkle made concerning safety conditions.
“The operators of leak detection equipment at chemical weapons depots should be encouraged to ask questions about safety, but at Bluegrass silence is prized above all else,” Condit added.
PEER is requesting that the Defense Department Office of Inspector General determine the current efficacy of monitoring devices at Bluegrass Depot, review prior monitoring reports to determine their accuracy, interview the monitoring staff and look into the maintenance regimen for the leak detectors.