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Weapons destruction in turmoil, GAO says

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WASHINGTON — The nation's program to destroy chemical arms is still in turmoil — despite repeated reform attempts amid years of delay and spiraling cost overruns, congressional researchers said Friday.

"The repeated realignments of the program have done little to resolve its awkward, hydra-like structure in which roles and responsibilities continue to be poorly defined, multiple lines of authority exist, and coordination between various entities is poor," a U.S. General Accounting Office report said.

Utah's Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele County originally stored 44 percent of the nation's chemical weapons before destruction began. It was the first of eight depot bases in the continental states to begin incinerating its stockpile, but it has faced several problems and delays.

Company officials at the Deseret Chemical Depot hadn't read the report but said they are implementing changes to address the problems.

"The Chem-Demil is a complex and challenging operation and the bottom line is safety dictates the schedule," said Alaine Southworth, spokeswoman for Utah's Deseret Chemical Depot. "We recently streamlined. We combined the storage and Chem-Demil into a single organization, which I think will help."

The new GAO report comes after the Pentagon said earlier this week it will not be able to meet a treaty deadline requiring destruction of at least 45 percent of the U.S. chemical stockpile by April 29. It said it will ask an international oversight group to extend that deadline to December 2007.

The GAO, a research arm of Congress, said such problems are not new.

"For more than a decade, the Chem-Demil Program has struggled to meet schedule milestones — and control the enormous costs for destroying the nation's chemical weapons stockpile," it said.

It noted that projected costs for the program have increased from an estimated $15 billion in 1998 to $24 billion in 2001, with more cost increases expected because of recent delays.

The program was also supposed to complete destruction of all chemical arms by 2007, but now wants to complete only 45 percent of the destruction by then. So far, it says it has destroyed about 27 percent of the arms.

The GAO said weaknesses remain that did not allow the military to anticipate or control problems ranging from accidents that shut down plants (including an eight-month shut down at Tooele after a worker was exposed to nerve agent) to environmental permitting difficulties.

"The Chemical Demilitarization Program remains in turmoil," it said. "The program lacks stable leadership at the upper management levels. . . . Recent reorganizations have done little to reduce the complex and fragmented organization of the program."

The GAO said that occurs as the program "is entering a crucial period as more of its sites move into the operations phase. As this occurs, the program faces potentially greater challenges that it has already encountered, including the possibilities of growing community resistance, unanticipated technical problems, and serious site incidents."

The GAO recommended, and the Defense Department concurred, that some basic changes are needed.

It called for the military to "develop an overall strategy and implementation plan" for the program that includes a mission statement, its long-term goals, and clear definitions of "the roles and responsibilities of all DoD (Defense Department) and Army offices."

Despite the problems, the GAO notes the U.S. program is still far ahead of Russia. It has managed to destroy only 1 percent of its stockpile. The GAO said it is doubtful that Russia can destroy all its arms by 2012, the longest extension allowed by current treaty.

Contributing: Donna Kemp Spangler

E-mail: lee@desnews.com