Senators decry plan to transport chemical weapons
07/08/2008

By MATTHEW DALY/ Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawmakers from both parties are challenging a Pentagon plan to study whether to transport deadly chemical weapons across state lines to speed their destruction.

The plan outlines one of several options the Pentagon is considering as it struggles to meet a congressional deadline to destroy the chemical weapons by 2017.

Members of Congress and watchdog groups say the plan exposes the public to unnecessary risks and violates a 2005 law making it illegal for the Department of Defense to study the possibility of transporting chemical weapons across state lines.

"As much as I would like to see the destruction completed, I insist that it be done safely and in accordance with the law," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. said late Monday.

Oregon is one of four states where chemical weapons could be transported under a scenario outlined in a report to Congress last month. The others are Alabama, Arkansas and Utah.

The weapons are now being dismantled in Kentucky and Colorado, but officials say the military probably could not meet the 2017 deadline unless it ships nerve agents and mustard gas to additional sites for destruction.

Even adding more people and working around the clock at the two current sites may not help the military meet the deadline, the report said.

Work would be speeded up if some weapons at Kentucky's Blue Grass Army Depot were moved to sites in Alabama and Arkansas, while chemicals at the Pueblo, Colo., site were sent to Utah and Oregon, the report said.

The Army is disposing of chemical weapons at its Umatilla Chemical Depot in Umatilla, Ore., near the Columbia River south of Kennewick, Wash. The Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado is 1,200 miles from eastern Oregon, and chemicals transported between Pueblo and Umatilla would likely go through Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

The Deseret Chemical Depot near Tooele, Utah, is about 675 miles from Pueblo.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Wyden said the 2005 law prohibits the Pentagon from studying the transfer of chemical weapons across state lines. Lawmakers cited possible terrorist activity and traffic hazards, among other risks, in adopting the law, which strengthens a longtime ban on transporting chemical weapons across state lines.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the risks of shipping more weapons into his state's Anniston Army Depot outweigh the benefits, even though a weapons destruction program at Anniston has so far been successful.

"We cannot sacrifice safety and security for expediency," Shelby said.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he would block any transfer of weapons to his state. "Under no circumstances would I ever allow this to take place in our state," he said.

Congress would have to change laws prohibiting the weapons transfer to allow it to go forward.

Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib stressed that no decisions have been made.

The report merely outlines a series of options the Pentagon is considering as it tries to meet the 2017 deadline to destroy the chemical weapons, which are outdated and of no military use, he said.

Destruction of the weapons "is complex, dangerous and something we want to make sure is done right," Isleib said.

Under current funding and manpower levels, the weapons would not be destroyed until 2023, Isleib said. The work could be done faster if some weapons are shipped to other states or if Congress approves a sharp increase in jobs and funding for the project, he said.

That last option may be what the Pentagon is really seeking, said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Kentucky-based watchdog group. He called the report a smoke screen for the Pentagon to seek more money for the Colorado and Kentucky sites.

"If it's illegal, why spend taxpayers' dollars even studying" the idea of transporting the weapons across state lines? Williams asked.

Isleib called such criticism conjecture and said, "The thing to bear in mind is that we've been doing this destruction since 1990, and we've been doing it safely."

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Associated Press writer Ben Evans contributed to this story.