By Gabe LaMonica
Wearing a welding mask to protect from heat and sparks, a worker put the finishing touches on a system capable of a task never performed: the destruction of chemical weapons agents at sea.
The Cape Ray, equipped with chemical weapons disposal systems, should be deployed in about two weeks. Once deployed, it will take the ship 10 days to reach the center of the Mediterranean Sea and three more days to reach the coast of Syria.
But with no orders yet to sail, officials Thursday opened the 648-foot cargo ship in Norfolk, Virginia, to display two field deployable hydrolysis systems (FDHS) installed on its main trailer deck. Each FDHS costs about $5 million. They are based on machines that “have been used for about 10 years now to destroy our own chemical materials,” according to Frank Kendall, a Defense Department official.
“Putting these systems on a ship wasn’t the first option that came to mind,” said Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Technology and Logistics.
He said time is the most challenging aspect of destroying the weapons at sea. The crew will have 90 days to neutralize an expected 700 metric tons of chemical mustard gas and DF compound, the precursor to sarin nerve gas.
Capt. Rick Jordan, 40, a sailing veteran who works for Keystone Shipping, is contracted under the Maritime Administration to captain the Cape Ray and its crew of 35.
A security contingent and a 63-member chemical destruction team will also be on board.
“Far and away weather is our single biggest obstacle on this trip,” the captain said. He said any production will be shut down in heavy seas.
Adam Baker, a chemical engineer who worked on the FHDS, described it is a unique venture.
“This has not been done on this particular platform. It has not been done at sea,” he said.
Baker, from the US Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), said the operation involves “taking the established operations that we’ve done at several land sites domestically and internationally, and applying them here” on a sea-faring motor vessel.
“This system is designed specifically for bulk liquid chemical agent,” rather than active warheads, Baker said.
Kendall said that a year ago when the effort started, “we were not in a position to do this.”
The plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons, in conjunction with the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), involves the transport of chemical weapons in safe containers to the Syrian port of Latakia.
That hasn’t happened yet, and Kendall said that getting weapons out of Syria in time is “a Syrian responsibility.”
Norwegian and Danish ships are prepared to on-load chemical weapons for transport out of Syria, but have been turned away from Latakia. When or if the chemical containers ever make it aboard the Norwegian and Danish ships, they will then have to be “transshipped” from the Norwegian and Danish ships onto the Cape Ray, in what Kendall called a “fairly short, two day operation.”
Each FDHS system on the Cape Ray is housed inside a white environmental enclosure, and those enclosures are enveloped in a larger enclosure, all ventilated through carbon filtration systems. Two FDHS systems running concurrently are capable of neutralizing 130 gallons of chemical weapons material in two hours, according to Baker.
No matter how you cut it, 700 metric tons of neutralized chemical weapons will produce 1.5 million gallons of hazardous material. Rob Malone, an environmental engineer from the office of the Joint Project Manager for Elimination in Edgewood, Maryland, said they call these leftovers “Drano”
It’s up to the OPCW to find a facility for safe Drano disposal.