Washington, DC — The U.S. Justice Department has convened a grand jury to look into reports of safety, security and environmental lapses at the chemical weapons storage operations of the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The investigation was spurred by growing reports of high-level misconduct and mismanagement from Depot staff, including concerns about the safety of chemical munitions stockpiles.
In a letter dated February 8, 2007, Jeffrey Phillips, a Justice Department lawyer in the Environmental Crimes Section, wrote that a December 1, 2006 grand jury subpoena in the “on-going criminal investigation” of “Chemical Weapons Activity” at the Depot requires base staff to assemble:
- “Documentation concerning the Depot, such as might reflect site conditions, deterioration of the chemical weapons storage area, plans and training to account for leaks or terrorist attacks…”;
- “Environmental or technical investigation reports regarding the Chemical Weapons Activity”; and
- “All documents related to…worker safety and/or environmental compliance.”
Located outside of Richmond (population 75,000) and 30 miles south of Lexington, the Bluegrass Army Depot is charged with safeguarding more than 500 tons of chemical warfare agents located in 45 storage units called igloos, including the highly lethal nerve agent VX. The igloos also contain live rockets, complete with propellants. The igloos are supposed to be constantly monitored to detect any leak of chemical agent or rocket propellant or any deterioration of storage conditions.
Whistleblowers have described a culture at Bluegrass Army Depot which tolerates lapses in monitoring protocol and discourages reports of problems. Significantly, the Justice Department is also seeking any records of investigations directed against staff promotion, termination and transfer decisions as well as “discussions related to…responses to public inquiries, public investigations or this investigation.”
“This criminal investigation into problems at Blue Grass is long overdue,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is representing depot whistleblowers. “Even if the misconduct at Blue Grass does not rise to the level of a crime, there has unquestionably been a complete breakdown of management competence and integrity at this sensitive facility as well as severe lapses in oversight by the Depot’s parent agency, the Army Material Command.”
The Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department is located in Washington, D.C. and its purpose is to assist U.S. Attorneys in prosecuting environmental cases of national significance. In addition, criminal prosecution of another federal agency is usually reserved for cases in which individual managers are deliberately falsifying records or taking other egregious steps to evade the normal administrative controls within their chain-of-command.