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For Immediate Release: Jul 20, 2009
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

NERVE GAS LEAK DETECTORS INOPERATIVE FOR YEARS

Army Report Confirms Blue Grass Chemical Weapons Depot Was “Flying Blind”


Washington, DC — 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.

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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

Learn about the van Winkle whistleblower case