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Chemical Welfare 

The government accuses Bechtel of mismanagement as a smoke screen to avoid paying for alternative means of destroying deadly gases

Wednesday, Feb 9 2005
When Bechtel Corp. inflates federal infrastructure contracts, manipulates politicians into serving the company's economic ends, and egregiously fails to comply with Army project specifications such that mountains of aging nerve gas bombs spend excessive time deteriorating on military compounds, I don't usually leap to the San Francisco construction giant's defense.

But this time is different. The aforementioned accusations, detailed in a November 2004 report by the government watchdog Office of Inspector General, appear to be more an example of sophisticated scapegoating than whistle-blowing.

When examined in combination with a portion of President Bush's proposed federal budget, announced to Congress this week, that deals with destroying America's chemical weapons stockpile, and with a military directive quietly issued at Christmastime that orders "studying" the possibility of shipping chemical weapons stockpiles across the country, the Inspector General's report appears less an instance of Bechtel's corporate wrongdoing and more an example of deep cynicism emanating from the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

It appears to provide cover for a Rummy plan to save money for favored military projects by shipping carloads of deadly mustard gas and even deadlier sarin and VX nerve gas across hundreds of miles of U.S. roads and railways. In this cross-country game of musical chairs, thousands of tons of chemical weapons would ship to any of a half-dozen plants with the capacity to incinerate them. The proposal would save money by reducing the cost of building new, safe plants where the weapons sit -- while exposing millions of Americans to the risk of death by blistering or paralysis in the event of a rail or freeway accident or terrorist attack.

The Pentagon laid the groundwork for this scheme through thin-seeming charges detailing Bechtel's supposed mishandling of a contract to build a green chemical weapons destruction plant in Pueblo, Colo.

During last week's State of the Union address, Bush said he accepts "responsibility to future generations to leave them an America that is safe from danger." Perhaps now that Bush's 9/11-themed first term has ended, he feels it's time to take unprecedented actions to endanger us.

Since armies first got the idea, during World War I, to release clouds of excruciating-death-causing gas upon each other, the United States has stockpiled mountains of weaponized toxins at military bases all over the country. By 1985, when the Pentagon promised Congress it would start getting rid of these weapons of mass destruction, the stockpile had reached 31,000 tons. Building the required half-dozen incineration plants would cost $1.83 billion, the Army then said. In 1997, America ratified the international Chemical Weapons Convention, pledging to eliminate the arsenal by 2007, with a possible extension to 2012. But the project has proved far more expensive and time-consuming than the military planned. By last year the Army had destroyed only 28 percent of the stockpile, with a projected cost of $24 billion to complete the task. Back in 1997, Congress had responded to complaints about the dangers of poison gas incineration by authorizing the Pentagon to build plants to destroy the materiel using more benign methods. The chemicals would be rendered harmless by stewing them in hot water, then feeding the residue to special bacteria. Some military brass, however, have apparently viewed this approach as a touchy-feely waste of time. Records dating from the alternative weapons neutralization program's inception show Pentagon officials repeatedly attempting to derail it.

It would seem there's an element of the military nostalgic for the golden, 1900-1980s era of WMD development, storage, and handling. Back then it was OK to test, say, biological weapons by dumping them over U.S. cities, then secretly monitoring how they dispersed through the population, as the Army did with the biotoxin serratia marcescens over San Francisco in 1950. It was fine to visit a nuclear holocaust upon Pacific atolls and to send truckloads of population-threatening biological and chemical weapons on whatever cross-country relocation expedition Army warehouse managers deemed expedient. As efficient as this last policy may have seemed to military depot staff, civilian America eventually went about trying to phase out this carefree era. In 1995 Congress outlawed interstate transport of chemical warfare agents. And in 1996, it ordered the Pentagon to come up with ways to get rid of poison gas other than burning it, after people living near the incinerators protested chemical weapons vaporizing into their air.

In 2002, the Department of Defense awarded Bechtel a contract to develop a plant in Pueblo to destroy chemical weapons without burning. Given that the Army was behind schedule to meet the 2007 treaty deadline to destroy the weapons, and given the national post-9/11 preoccupation with terrorist targets, the Army said the facility should hasten the weapons destruction schedule set in 1985.

Four months after awarding the contract -- but before Bechtel had completed its design studies based on the stepped-up directive -- the Defense Department told Congress the project would cost $1.5 billion. In May 2004, however, initial plant specifications from Bechtel showed the revised Colorado plant would actually cost $2.6 billion.

Early last year Pentagon brass complained to the press about the supposed cost overruns, and acting Defense Under Secretary Michael Wynne instructed the Inspector General to investigate. In November the report came out complaining that facilities had been built larger than requested in the original contract, that the plant wouldn't have the weapons destroyed by the treaty deadline, and that Bechtel had improperly leaked to Colorado politicians news of impending funding cuts to the Pueblo program. On Dec. 21 Wynne announced a new "funding profile" all but eliminating the Pueblo project, and ordered that the Army explore shipping mustard gas from Pueblo to incineration plants elsewhere in the country, the idea being to save money by utilizing plants that had nearly finished burning up on-site weapons by bringing in new gas bombs from elsewhere. Soon after, Bechtel announced it would cut 200 employees from its San Francisco headquarters, citing Pueblo cutbacks.

Ordinarily, I'd buy all that. Military contractors screw taxpayers with the same forethought the rest of us apply to putting out the cat. But circumstances surrounding the November audit, combined with the way Rumsfeld's office employed it as a pretext for the Army's mind-bogglingly dangerous nerve-gas relocation program, suggest there's more at work here than a newfound Bush administration penchant for curbing military contractor waste.

The Army has responded unusually swiftly to its supposed Pueblo problem by essentially shutting it down. Yet the watchdog complaints were hardly damning -- in essence, the report merely said that stepped-up project specs resulting from post-9/11 terrorism concerns had ended up costing more money than old specs would have.

I asked Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the Pentagon agency created to oversee the Bechtel project in Colorado, if Bechtel might suffer, say, increased scrutiny applied to its U.S. government contracts in Iraq and elsewhere. After all, the report seems to suggest that the company committed expensive contracting improprieties.

"Absolutely not. Absolutely not," DeWeese exclaimed, more emphatically than flacks usually exclaim. "The feeling here is that Bechtel was meeting the standards of the contract fully. They were collaborating with us to meet the requirements that were in place."

Now, it's usual for PR spokespeople to defend their departments against criticism, just as DeWeese did. But it's also de rigueur for agency bosses to ignore reports from their Inspector General.

But in the case of the supposedly mishandled Bechtel chemical weapons contract, Pentagon officials jumped to action as soon as the Inspector General's report's ink was dry. Craig Williams, with the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group -- which advocates for the stockpile's safe, timely destruction -- thinks the Inspector General's report is a smoke screen to disguise the military brass' long-held desire to get rid of a hated touchy-feely alternative weapons destruction program.

"I know the people that ginned up the idea to do the report. I know what was contained in the directives. I know what their agenda is. Off the record, I know it is bullshit," Williams says.

Bush's budget proposal to Congress this week cuts the non-incinerator-based chemical weapons destruction program by more than two-thirds, essentially halting it.

I called Army spokesman Jeff Linblad. Boy, that Bechtel, it really screwed up. Will the company be punished in any meaningful way? I hoped to ask. Linblad, however, wouldn't comment on Bechtel. But he would confirm the Army's proposed solution to its supposed Bechtel problem.

"Right now I'm not authorized to discuss the scope, the width, and breadth of our evaluation," Linblad said in perfect Army-ese. "I could confirm, however, that we're doing this. I will say we're looking at relocating some of the stockpiles."

By one Strangelove-ian way of thinking, everybody wins here. America is saved the expense of building an environmentally sensitive WMD destruction plant, and it can better use the money on, say, protecting troops against the new government of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, or expanding the latest incarnation of the "Star Wars" missile-defense system.

Except for a couple of disturbing facts. For example, when you enter "Pueblo" as a starting point and "Aberdeen" (site of an incineration facility) as an end point into, you get 1,731 miles of American counties, towns, and human beings in between.

There are 1,600 tons of mustard gas at Pueblo, all contained in mortars and bombs, complete with rocket motors, bursting devices, and electronic mechanisms to launch them. Even routinely moving them the few yards around the depot is an extraordinarily sensitive task, says the Chemical Weapons Working Group's Williams.

"In order to move these rockets from where they're stored, they take out three pallets from what they call the 'igloos,' where they store them under guard. That's 36 rockets. They then transport it to an enhanced, on-site container worth $1.5 million. They suck out all the air and seal it. They put it on a special flatbed vehicle, and move it at half a mile an hour from the storage facility to the incinerator. They only do it during daylight hours, and then only when it's good weather -- no wind, rain. So it's not blown around."

Far be it for me to suggest that a similar effort, mounted over thousands of miles, with thousands of tons of toxins and bombs, might attract terrorists or encourage accidents. Just the same, I called Leonard Cole, a Rutgers adjunct professor and author of the book The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Chemical and Biological Warfare, and asked him what he thought about the Pentagon's idea for cross-country poison-gas musical chairs. Terrorism is the least of our worries, he said cheerily, then told me a story.

"A month ago, chlorine was being shipped by train through South Carolina. There was an accident, some of the canisters were punctured, there was leakage of the chlorine, and nine people were dead. Areas near the train wreck were contaminated. We don't think of chlorine as an agent we'd have in serious quantities as a chemical weapon. Instead we have mustard agents and nerve agents. Either of them, if they were to leak through canisters, a pinhead drop of, say, sarin -- that's the one the Tokyo cult used in the subway -- a single tiny drop of that will kill you in 60 seconds. If you inhale vapors, it will kill you sooner. VX, meanwhile, is not only more potent, it's more long-lasting."

I would expect so. The Army seems to make efficiency a priority when it comes to chemical weapons.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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