Are you ready for an experiment? The U.S. government is about to try something never before undertaken, utilizing equipment never before used under these circumstances. Are you ready for the first stab at neutralizing chemical weapons at sea, on a ship not designed for that purpose, using downsized machinery intended for the stability of land-based operations? Are you comfortable?
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour — a woman with a limited understanding of sovereignty, it appears — wrote this week, “No countries wanted to destroy Syria’s chemicals on land, so the UN is doing it at sea.” No. The UN is not destroying Syrian chemical weapons at sea; the United States is doing it at the behest of the UN. The MV Cape Ray, a transport and humanitarian-response vessel owned by the U.S. Maritime Administration will be the platform. The MV Cape Ray is, generally, an insertion ship — it has taken surge weapons to troops in Iraq, and humanitarian supplies to Haiti after the earthquake and New England after Hurricane Sandy. Thirty-five American seamen and an unknown number of American military personnel will be aboard the ship, along with chemical weapons experts from various countries. U.S. military personnel will operate the machinery.
The Pentagon had already spent the $10 million on two “Field-Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS),” a well-known system for neutralizing chemical weapons, understanding at some level that the U.S. would end up responsible for Syrian chemicals. But, according to a DOD environmental engineer on the project, FDHA “has never been built in such a small, transportable unit, and chemical weapons have never before been destroyed at sea.” The equipment was tested for vibration, sloshing liquids, and other potential problems, but speaking in an ABC News story, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall said laconically, “Putting these systems on a ship wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.”
And, even if the job is done without spilling the chemicals into the ocean, the chemicals will not be rendered harmless. An estimated 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste will be produced. Okay, better hazardous waste than chemical weapons (the Syrian government had the mustard gas ready for use), but no one seems to know where this waste will go or who will be responsible for its disposition. One might reasonably assume that since it is on an American ship, the U.S. will be asked to deal with it. Commercial bids are being sought for ultimate disposal — and since low bid generally wins, 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste could conceivably be given to Happy Harry’s Used Car Dealership and Hazardous Waste Disposal Company.
Perhaps the U.S. government will take domestic EPA regulations into account to try to manage the potential harm. If so, the job cannot be done in the short term. According to the EPA website, regulations specific to hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities cover topics such as “air emissions; closure; corrective action/hazardous waste cleanup; financial assurance; ground water monitoring; land disposal restrictions; and permits and permitting.” At home, the answers are required before the operation.
The EPA, for example, recently published New Source Performance Standards for new coal-fired plants. The rules are 500 pages long and are the result of more than two years of pushing and pulling between environmental groups and the energy industry. There are those who hope the new rules will put coal out of business entirely. On the other side, the energy industry points out that coal generates power for some 7.2 million homes and businesses in Ohio and Pennsylvania alone, and accounts for more than 555,000 jobs in total. The argument continues after the publication of the rules.
In another example, Congress and the EPA spent more than 30 years arguing about the disposal of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Or, more accurately, arguing about not disposing of waste that might prove toxic a hundred years from now. Unable to reach consensus, Congress cut off funds for Yucca Mountain in 2010.
If the Obama Administration is not applying EPA standards, or offloads the post-chemical-weapons residue onto foreign ships to be disposed of who-knows-how in who-knows-what other country, how does the U.S. justify exposing other people to potential toxicity that would be unlawful here at home?
If the president weighed American environmental protection laws against UN dictates and found the UN more compelling, it would almost be understandable. The EPA system is hugely flawed, with lengthy debates, high costs, endless minutiae, and paralyzing acrimony. But this is the system we’ve designed for ourselves; this is what we subject ourselves to. Now, the United States has committed itself to doing something in international waters that has the potential to dwarf the damage of coal plants. Something not debated and authorized by Congress or even actually proposed by the president, but concocted by the UN, which needs us to execute. And the U.S. didn’t spend 30 years, or two years, or even one year, evaluating the potential problems.
Somewhere in the middle of an ocean, the United States is about to undertake an experiment with chemical weapons. With all due respect to, and all possible faith in the capabilities of the United States military, no one should be sanguine about its success.