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The United States is about to begin destroying its largest remaining stockpile of chemical-laden artillery shells. The Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado plans to start neutralizing 2,600 tons of aging mustard agent in March as the U.S. moves toward complying with a 1997 treaty banning all chemical weapons.
"The start of Pueblo is an enormous step forward to a world free of chemical weapons," said Paul Walker, who has tracked chemical warfare for more than 20 years, first as a U.S. House of Representatives staffer and currently with advocacy group Green Cross International. The Army will use two methods for the stockpile. Shells that are leaking or damaged will be placed in a sealed steel chamber with walls up to nine inches thick. Explosives will tear open the shells and the mustard agent will be neutralized with chemicals.
The remaining hundreds of thousands of shells will be run through a $4.5 billion plant starting in December or January. It will dismantle the shells, neutralize the mustard agent in water, and then add bacteria to digest and convert the remaining chemicals. The end product can be disposed of at a hazardous waste dump.
Nearly 90 percent of the U.S. stockpile has been eliminated at depots in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Utah and Johnson Atoll in the Pacific, mostly by incineration. Pueblo expects to finish the job in 2019 — more than 55 years after some of the shells there were produced.