Washington, DC — The worker who revealed that leak detection devices for deadly VX agent at the Bluegrass Army Depot were not working properly has filed a federal whistleblower complaint that he was reassigned from his job for asking questions about plant safety, according to a filing released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The reassignment compromises an already inadequate emergency response capability in the event of a leak at the chemical weapons storage facility located in Kentucky.
Bluegrass Army Depot stores over 500 tons of chemical warfare agents in 45 storage units called igloos. Donald Van Winkle, who operates air-monitoring units designed to detect leaks of chemical warfare agents, disclosed last week that the monitors to detect VX agent had been configured so as to be ineffective until very recently. Van Winkle’s disclosure has already triggered a Defense Department inspection of the facility later this month.
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. As a consequence, Van Winkle has spent the past month at a desk job in another part of the facility.
“Last we checked, asking questions about the safety of one’s workplace is not only allowed, it is supposed to be encouraged, especially at a chemical weapons plant,” stated PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, whose organization is representing Van Winkle. “Bluegrass Army Depot should let Donald Van Winkle go back to the job he was trained to do.”
Because Van Winkle has been reassigned to a desk job away from the chemical munitions, the number of qualified emergency responders in case of the release of an agent is reduced. Last week, Bluegrass Depot admitted that a leak of mustard agent had occurred in two different igloos on July 19th.
“As we have all been tragically reminded this week in New Orleans, it is better to plan for the worse than merely just hope for the best,” Condit added. “At Bluegrass Depot, the Army must be hoping for the best because they certainly do not appear to be prepared for the worse.”
One worst-case scenario involves the highly lethal nerve agent, VX. Van Winkle’s disclosure called into question whether VX detectors were inoperative for many months. In the event of a large-scale release of VX nerve agent from the munitions into the igloos, the Army may not have been able to timely detect the release, let alone respond to it.
Van Winkle filed a whistleblower complaint under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The complaint triggers an immediate federal investigation and, if the matter is not resolved in 30 days, a full evidentiary hearing before a federal administrative law judge will be scheduled.