Drill practices response to Kentucky chemical weapons leak
RICHMOND, KY (WAVE) - If chemical weapons stored in Kentucky leaked out into the community the results could be catastrophic.
What would people do? And how would emergency crews respond? One Bluegrass community wrestled with those questions Wednesday.
There are 523 tons of toxic agents stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, including more than 400 tons of sarin and VX, the most deadly of chemical weapons.
An disaster exercise involving 2,000 people over 10 counties is no game for people working the phones inside the Madison County emergency operations center. They were simulating what would happen if a fork lift accident led to the release of sarin at the depot. Sarin is the nerve agent used in August to kill 1,400 people in Syria.
"We wouldn't have the exercises otherwise, if it weren't a possibility," said Steve Horwitz of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which took part in the drill. "A remote possibility. But you can't rule it out all together."
Emergency management recruits EKU students to pretend as if they've been exposed to chemical weapons, then they show up at the hospital where workers dressed in protective suits actually take them through a simulated decontamination process, just like this were the real thing.
As medical workers practice how to respond to victims, nearby Clark Morris Middle School drills how to shelter in place, not letting anyone in or out, just as they would if the sarin had actually gone airborne.
"I wish we didn't have it," principal Vickie Fritz. "But our location of the school, we're going to do whatever we have to keep our kids safe."
The US Government has been working to destroy its chemical weapons since the 1990's eliminating stockpiles at seven of nine sites. But Greg Mahall, spokesman for the Army's Chemical Materials Activity, said safety objections by community groups over the incineration process originally used by the military to destroy chemical weapons led to the projects in Colorado and Kentucky coming under congressional control. And funding problems for the revamped process left it years behind schedule.
"I think it's a prime example of our democratic government at work," Mahall said.
One of those groups, the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Berea, claims it was the army that caused delays by pushing forward with an un safe disposal process. And director Craig Williams said the current system, which separates the explosives from the chemicals themselves, is the only way to ensure toxic reside doesn't seep into the air.
The chemical weapon destruction plant under construction at the Blue Grass Army Depot won't be finished until 2020 and the stockpile not completely eradicated until 2023. Meaning Madison County and the surrounding community will live with the threat for years to come.
The price tag for the US chemical weapons destruction program is estimated at more than $35 billion.
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