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IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Release No: 539-96
September 18, 1996

NOTIFICATIONS OF POSSIBLE CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPOSURE TO BE MADE

New Notices

Deputy Secretary of Defense John P. White announced today an expanded notification program to Gulf War veterans who may have been exposed to low levels of chemical weapon agents resulting from demolitions of Iraqi ammunition at the Khamisiyah weapons storage complex in Southern Iraq in March 1991, shortly after Desert Storm had ended.

The expanded notices were ordered by White because information currently being evaluated suggests low level exposures may have taken place out to 25 km from the Khamisiyah complex on March 10, 1991, when a small group of U.S. forces detonated a still unknown number of 122 mm chemical rockets in a pit area a few kilometers away from Bunker 73, which was destroyed on March 4. Both the pit and Bunker 73 are located in the vast Khamisiyah complex.

The Pentagon announced the discovery of the destruction of chemical weapons at Bunker 73 during a news conference on June 21. At that time, there had been no reports of demolitions by U.S troops in the pit area. After the briefing, the Persian Gulf Investigation Team continued to examine intensively the operations at the Khamisiyah complex. The team's further discussions with veterans revealed that members of the 37th Engineer Battalion destroyed stacks of crated munitions in the pit area on March 10, 1991, after these stacks were found by the battalion operations officer a day earlier. Information about the destruction of chemical weapons in the pit area has been developed since that time.

As reported to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses on September 5, 1996, DoD and the Central Intelligence Agency are working on a computer model that will estimate the possible dispersion of any chemical agents that might have occurred during the weapons destruction. DoD will begin notifications immediately to about 5,000 Service members who were in the possible dispersion area. As we learn more about Khamisiyah in these next few weeks, we expect to identify more troops who might have been exposed. DoD will notify them to offer them evaluation.

Notifications will be done as quickly as possible by letter. As always, veterans will be offered medical evaluation and treatment by DoD or VA, as appropriate.

Veterans who were in the Khamisiyah area in March 1991 who have not already enrolled in either the DoD or VA registry and examination program can call the following toll-free numbers (DoD at 1-800-796-9699 and VA at 1-800-749-8387).

The Pit Area at Khamisiyah

In October 1991, the UNSCOM inspection team found 297 122mm rockets containing a mixture of the chemical nerve agents sarin (GB) and cyclosarin (GF) in the pit area. The mostly intact rockets were found in several heaps or piles, but some appeared to have been damaged or destroyed. At that time the Iraqis told UNSCOM that occupying coalition troops had destroyed chemical weapons at Bunker 73 earlier that year. UNSCOM reported that the rockets found in the pit area were apparently salvaged from that bunker. Iraqi statements however, were viewed with skepticism at the time because of the use of deception by the Iraqis against UNSCOM.

In March 1992, when the UNSCOM inspectors returned to Khamisiyah, they reported that they consolidated and destroyed a total of 463 nerve agent 122mm rockets found in the pit area, including the 297 they found during the October 1991 inspection. Approximately 300 additional intact rockets were found buried in the pit area which were sent to Al Muthanna, 100 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, for destruction. DoD and CIA are currently trying to determine how many rockets were destroyed in the pit.

In May 1996, UNSCOM inspectors returned to Khamisiyah and were told by Iraqi officials that some 2,160 122mm GB/GF rockets were moved into bunker 73 from Al Muthanna just prior to the air war. The Iraqis told the inspectors that these rockets began to leak and they moved approximately half of them from bunker 73 to the pit area. The movement of these munitions occurred prior to the 37th Engineer Battalion's arrival in early March 1991. At this inspection, the Iraqis also stated that occupying coalition forces destroyed the pit area rockets.

As part of the systematic destruction of the Khamisiyah ammunition area, the 37th Engineer Battalion destroyed stacks of crated munitions in the pit area on 10 March 1991 after these stacks were found by the battalion operations officer a day earlier.

The Persian Gulf Investigation Team will continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the pit area demolition, identify what troops were in the area at the time, determine the amount of any chemical agents released, and ascertain details required to model any potential downwind hazard area. Using modeled downwind hazard distance and unit location data from our Geographic Information System, units in the Khamisiyah vicinity that were possibly affected will be identified for further analysis and follow-up.