DENVER, COLORADO - The U.S. Army is considering trucking hazardous wastewater from a chemical weapons destruction plant in Colorado to another state because the plant isn't yet fully operational.
Incinerators in Texas and Arkansas are under consideration to destroy up to 250,000 gallons (946,000 liters) of wastewater from the Pueblo Chemical Depot, but officials couldn't immediately provide the exact locations Thursday.
The southern Colorado plant is dismantling and neutralizing shells containing mustard agent but can't yet process the wastewater and is running out of storage space, officials said.
The waste is primarily saltwater but could irritate human skin because it contains a caustic chemical used to neutralize the mustard. Officials said the wastewater contains no mustard agent.
The highly automated, $4.5 billion plant is destroying about 780,000 shells filled with 2,500 tons (2.3 million kilograms) of mustard agent under an international treaty. It's the largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons in the U.S.
Mustard agent can maim or kill by blistering skin, scarring eyes and inflaming airways.
Under most conditions, it's a thick liquid, not a gas as commonly believed. It is colorless and almost odorless but got its name because impurities made early versions smell like mustard.
The Pueblo plant began work last year and has destroyed more than 19,600 shells and 112 tons (102,000 kilograms) of mustard, depot spokesman Tom Schultz said.
But a leak delayed the start of one of the last steps in the process — removing salts and other chemicals from the water and converting them to a solid that can be taken to a hazard waste dump. The water would then be re-used in the plant.
The leak has been repaired but officials don't know whether that part of the plant will be ready before they run out of storage space, so they're making plans to ship some wastewater elsewhere if necessary.
No decision has been made, Schultz said, and the plant still needs to get approval from state health officials in Colorado to ship the wastewater by truck.
"The projections don't favor us," he said. "It appears that we may, I want to stress we may, have to ship up to [250,000 gallons or 946,000 liters] off-site."
The plant has three storage tanks that can hold a total of 855,000 gallons (3.2 million liters). As of Thursday, the tanks held about 700,000 gallons (2.6 million liters), said Sandra Romero, a spokeswoman for Bechtel Corp., the lead contractor in the partnership that built and operates the facility.
Managers don't want to stop operating the plant because they would still have $850,000 a day in labor costs whether they are running or not, Schultz said. They also worry that workers' skills would deteriorate without regular use.
"Their skills can get rusty," Schultz said. "We can't afford that to happen. Safety is far too important for us to risk having the workforce, having their skills degrade."
The Army stores an additional 523 tons (474,000 kilograms) of mustard and deadly nerve agents at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. A plant to destroy those weapons is expected to begin work in 2020.