Ensuring Environmental Safety     image of PDF button

Verifying worker and environmental protection during chemical weapons destruction


For almost 30 years, Dr. Michael G. MacNaughton has performed research and managed programs in environmental engineering, toxicology, chemical defense, and crew systems technology. An SwRI vice president, MacNaughton oversees the research and development activities of the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division.


More than 10 years ago, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) won its first contract to provide environmental monitoring services in support of a national chemical weapons demilitarization program at Johnston Atoll, a remote location west of Hawaii in the North Pacific. More recently, SwRI has taken on similar programs at two additional sites within the United States, at Umatilla, Oregon, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Dr. Michael G. MacNaughton, recently appointed vice president of the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division, describes environmental engineering activities at the Institute in connection with national chemical demilitarization activities.


Combustion products are removed prior to release from a Johnston Atoll pollution abatement system discharge stack.


Please describe the environmental engineering aspects of SwRI's participation in chemical weapons demilitarization.

We are supporting an Army program to help incinerate the nearly 30,000 tons of chemical weapons stockpiled by the U.S. We won our first such project in 1986 to provide environmental monitoring support at Johnston Atoll. We have recently been awarded two more contracts to provide these same services at the demilitarization facilities at Umatilla, Oregon, and at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. At the three sites, we monitor the air for several extremely toxic nerve agents and a blister agent called mustard.

In addition, we are helping the Army and commercial clients develop and implement alternatives to incineration, which has been the traditional method for munitions destruction. The alternative approaches include some novel technologies that use chemical hydrolysis, as well as other proprietary technologies such as Solvated Electron TechnologyTM, which involves treating the munitions under very strong chemical reducing conditions.

How is it that SwRI became involved in demilitarization activities?

Our selection for the Johnston Atoll program was fortuitous. That was back in the mid-1980s when we had limited experience working with chemical agents. We had done some toxicology experiments with the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research and had extensive experience in air monitoring for oxides of nitrogen, sulfur oxides, particulates, and other compounds, but didn't have a lot of background in monitoring for extremely low levels of chemical agents. Nobody else had experience either, however. We were ahead of the wave, and since than we've built up more expertise in monitoring of demilitarization activities than any other organization.

We have also developed a national reputation in air monitoring and treatment of unusual wastes, particularly those that have hazardous properties, such as explosives or very dangerous chemical agents. We have leveraged our expertise in both monitoring and handling of hazardous materials to assist commercial clients in evaluating their facilities to assure regulatory compliance and to achieve a safe working environment. Because of our experience and facilities, we're able to work with chemicals and materials that other companies cannot. We've studied ways to dispose of explosives because we have ballistics range facilities at the Institute. In addition, our unique surety facilities allow us to work with dangerous compounds in a safe environment. Those are the areas where we've had the greatest success, and we're continuing to expand our capabilities.

Since the Institute won its first environmental monitoring contract on Johnston Atoll, two similar awards have come through. Do you expect hazardous munitions destruction to continue?

Currently within the Army, there are eight sites in the United States that store chemical munitions. As I said earlier, we were recently awarded contracts for environmental monitoring responsibilities, similar to those on Johnston Atoll, in Oregon and Arkansas. There are two other sites, Tooele, Utah, and Anniston, Alabama, where chemical munitions are being destroyed under contracts awarded to other companies.

There are still four other sites with chemical munitions that are to be destroyed. Two of those are being managed under the Alternate Technologies Program -- those are in Aberdeen, Maryland, and Newport, Indiana. Both of those sites have bulk agent, which means the agent is stored in ton containers. There are no munitions associated with the agent. To destroy it, they intend to use chemical hydrolysis rather than incineration, and we've been actively participating in studies with the Army to implement this alternative approach. We've already designed the laboratory quality assurance plans and the monitoring concept plans for the neutralization plants. The Army has a new program to evaluate alternative technologies for assembled weapons and we are assisting commercial technology developers demonstrate their systems. There are two more sites at Blue Grass, Kentucky, and Pueblo, Colorado, that have assembled chemical munitions.


Quality control procedures on Johnston Atoll require that every method utilized be verified using chemical agent reference material. Here, an SwRI technician adds a reference material to a series of quality control samples prior to analysis.


The Army became interested in alternative technologies when resistance to incineration developed in some areas, despite the success in using incineration. During the incineration process, chemical agents are burned at high temperatures in a closed system, and the resulting acidic gaseous products are neutralized and removed by a pollution abatement system. The metal containers that formerly held the agents are also heated in ovens to completely destroy residual agent.

We're assisting the Army in establishing analytical methods for chemical agents and other regulated emissions to assure they are certifiable and acceptable to the Environmental Protection Agency and corresponding state agencies, but our primary responsibility has been developing ways to verify the destruction of the agent and to ensure that the public and the site workers are protected. That's been our primary mission. We are developing new analytical methods to improve agent monitoring instrumentation and are performing studies to verify and eliminate false alarms from agricultural pesticides or other industrial chemicals during the monitoring of the plant workplace and at the facility perimeter.

The Institute hasn't won every demilitarization program it has pursued. Why not?

As you can imagine, the environmental monitoring, or the laboratory portion, is a small part of the whole demilitarization program. We bid as a team member with what is now Raytheon Demilitarization Company as the constructor and operator of the plant. There are three major pieces of the contract: construction, operation, and laboratory services. Generally, price is a very big driver, as well as the quality of the proposal. That's like a lot of the other contracts we bid within the Institute -- you win some and you lose some.

Has the Institute contributed any new technology?

What we have done is help the Army and some commercial companies validate and verify new technologies. In the monitoring arena, we're looking at new instrumentation that will improve the sensitivity of the measurements for agents, as well as improve what we call the selectivity; that is, finding an agent in the midst of interferences from similar types of compounds. Frequent false alarms could cause undue concerns or, worse, complacency in the workers or community surrounding the facility. The Army is extremely concerned about false alarms caused by agricultural pesticides or other industrial chemicals. We've been involved with a number of studies to identify compounds that could potentially interfere with monitoring and to develop methods that eliminate confusion with chemical agents.

Some of the instrumentation we're working with allows a number of different analytical techniques to be used at the same time. We use gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers in combination with pulsed flame photometric detectors, which gives us three ways of separating the chemical agents from potential background interferences. We're also working on ways to improve the efficiency of the laboratory operations at the sites. It all boils down to improving the techniques so that environmental monitoring can be accomplished more reliably, at lower concentrations, and at a lower cost.

Can the technology used in those monitoring programs be used in other applications?

The technology we're using is similar to what's already used for normal environmental sampling. The demands of the monitoring and sampling that we do for these demilitarization plants is extremely rigorous, however, and in the commercial world would be too expensive. Our monitoring instrumentation uses gas chromatography to separate agent from interferences and an extremely sensitive and selective detector -- to be exact, a flame photometric detector -- to measure the compound of interest. With this methodology we can detect nerve agent in the parts per quadrillion range on a near-real-time basis. At the demilitarization plants, we focus on detecting these chemical agents under the strictest quality control. The extensive documentation is also much greater than anything that would be necessary in normal plant monitoring.


Health and safety monitoring is the Institute's primary role at Johnston Atoll. Continuous monitoring provides immediate warning of chemical agent vapors at levels 100 times below Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace exposure limits.


The techniques and instrumentation, however, may have spinoffs in the commercial arena, where real-time 24-hour, 365-day monitoring for some plants is being required by environmental regulators. Much of the environmental data at the demilitarization facilities is automatically collected and, at the slightest indication of a plant upset, the system is shut down. In the future, requirements for electronic transmission of continuous monitoring data from industrial facilities may be required so regulators can receive real-time data from plants to ensure they are within compliance. There are few direct applications today, but in the future there might be more.

SwRI is investigating alternative technologies for destruction of explosives and chemical agents for a commercial client. How do the alternative approaches improve on incineration?

The alternative technology programs are designed to investigate processes that can achieve destruction of the chemical agents and associated munitions as safely and as cost effectively as the baseline incineration program. There are currently two programs: the Alternative Technologies and Assessment Program, which is addressing nonweaponized bulk agent, and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment Program, which is investigating technologies for destruction of chemical munitions. These programs are driven primarily by the resistance of some communities and environmental activists to incineration.

The alternative methods basically combine the agents with other chemicals to make nontoxic products. In addition to air monitoring, these methods also require process monitoring. Because the alternative methods combine other chemicals with the chemical agent to destroy it, we must analyze the process streams to verify that the agent is indeed destroyed, thereby demonstrating proper operation of the plant systems. Also, the Army places other requirements on specified process streams that must be met before they can be sent on to the next treatment phase.

How about the prospects for environmental engineering in general?

I think environmental engineering has a good future. However, it's certainly not expanding as rapidly as it did in the 1970s and 1980s. We're trying to improve the environment, but in a much more cost-effective, responsible way. I think companies are scrutinizing the bottom line. Our services focus not only on helping companies comply with regulatory laws, but also providing the technology and techniques to improve their processes, stimulate pollution prevention, and enhance product quality.

Published in the Summer 1998 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

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