By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky's U.S. senators have offered a proposal aimed at accelerating the destruction of chemical weapons stored in central Kentucky by at least six years.
The amendment backed by Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning would set a 2017 deadline for disposing of the entire U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons. The senators proposed $49.3 million in additional funds for the job, and they want the Defense Department to give twice-a-year updates on progress.
They are trying to attach the amendment to a defense policy bill being debated in the Senate.
A large stockpile of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin and VX, have been stored in bunkers at Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond for decades.
Craig Williams, director of the Berea, Ky.-based watchdog Chemical Weapons Working Group, said the amendment was a necessary prod to complete a task that has been discussed since the 1980s.
"It's the kick in the pants that I think the Pentagon needs in order to get the Kentucky stockpile on a reasonable course for disposal," Williams said Wednesday by phone.
The Kentucky lawmakers had harsh words for the Defense Department's handling of the weapons disposal.
"DOD has been stonewalling for years and it is time for them to produce results," Bunning said.
McConnell, the Senate minority leader who introduced the amendment this week, said the department has "shown an unwillingness to commit the necessary resources" to get the job done. "It has been demonstrated that the longer these weapons remain in storage at the facility, the more unstable they become."
McConnell said the chemical weapons not only pose a risk to Richmond-area residents, but also present a "national security risk if they fall into the wrong hands."
Bunning and Colorado's senators, Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Wayne Allard, are co-sponsoring the proposal. Another stockpile of chemical weapons is stored in Colorado.
Williams praised the proposed additional funds for weapons disposal. The weapons were scheduled to be eliminated by 2012, but Pentagon officials have said the work wouldn't be done by then. Williams said that under current Pentagon funding proposals, weapons disposal at Blue Grass wouldn't be completed until 2023.
"The inhibitor to ridding ourselves of the risks associated with these weapons of mass destruction is purely a fiscal consideration by the Pentagon," Williams said.
Tons of the weapons, leftovers from the Cold War, are stored at the Kentucky depot. Some of the more deadly materials are stored in underground igloos and surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence and acres of forest.
Weapons at Blue Grass are to be destroyed through chemical neutralization, followed by a secondary treatment onsite. Early phases of the neutralization plant project are completed or under way, and construction of the main demilitarization building is set to begin late this year or in early 2008, Williams said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)