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United States Asks for Extension on Chemical Weapons Destruction Deadline

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2003 – Stressing that the United States is committed to meeting its Chemical Weapons Convention obligations, officials have asked for an extension on the deadline for destroying its intermediate 45 percent chemical weapons stockpile.

Patrick J. Wakefield, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for chemical demilitarization and threat reduction, said here Sept. 30 that for a number of reasons, the United States is unable to meet the April 29, 2004, deadline.

"The original authors of the treaty could not have foreseen the complications that this nation had to face," he said. He cited changing environmental laws and technology issues, as well as addressing the concerns of elected officials and the public, as being among the obstacles.

Two incidents at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah temporarily shut down operations, he added. On May 8, 2000, a small amount of chemical agent escaped into the environment, and TOCDF shut down until September 2000. On July 15, 2002, a worker was exposed to a low level of chemical agent. The facility ceased operations until March 2003.

These incidents prompted a number of investigations, said Wakefield. The result was a safety improvement plan that included rewriting procedures as well as retraining and retesting workers.

"Safety is paramount," he emphasized. "And I'm delighted to report that (the injured worker) has recovered and gone back to work."

Officials have asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Executive Council to grant the United States an extension to Dec. 31, 2007. This will necessarily, he added, push back the overall April 29, 2007, deadline for 100 percent destruction.

The CWC allows for one deadline extension of up to five years, provided its executive council receives the request by April 2006.

Wakefield said some people have worked their entire careers toward the destruction of these weapons.

"This is an extremely important program," he added. "Men and women in uniform, the civilian work force and contractors -- all have paid extraordinary prices personally and professionally to see to this job being done. (We have) highly professional, highly trained, very dedicated folks on this mission. They're doing a good job, but it's a tough job."

Wakefield cited the work of soldiers at the disposal facility at Johnston Atoll in Hawaii. "They did it safely. They've completed the mission."

In the wake of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Wakefield said company-size Army National Guard units provide "an additional layer of security" at the eight Army installations in the continental United States that house the U.S. chemical stockpile.

"Their efforts are extremely important," he added. "It's tough. They're there on a 24-7 basis. They're away from their homes, and not at the world's greatest sites. These facilities don't have a full infrastructure that you would find on an installation. We certainly recognize the sacrifices they're making and want to return them to their units as soon as possible."

The United States met previous deadlines ahead of schedule. As of July 24, approximately 23 percent of the chemical weapons stockpile had been destroyed.

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