ECBC Volunteers Honored for At-Sea WMD-Elimination Mission
Tim Blades got up from his seat and walked across the black stage without looking at the handful of Department of Defense stakeholders sitting to his left. He didn’t look out to the nearly 500 friends, families and colleagues sitting offstage to his right either. When he reached the podium, he looked only at the 45 U.S. Army civilian employees sitting in the front rows – the ones who voluntarily deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.
“I think I’d rather be out at sea,” he said with a laugh. It wasn’t like Blades, U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center mission commander of the operation, to feel comfortable in the spotlight, even during a ceremony held at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Instead, he directed the attention to the crew of which he said he was simply a part of.
“I have done hazardous operations for all of my adult life and could not be more proud,” Blades paused. A man who typically exhibits an all-business presence suddenly showed an uncharacteristic moment of emotion before continuing, “of the volunteers who actually executed the destruction of Syria’s most toxic stockpile onboard the Cape Ray. I cannot imagine any other group of people in the world who could have done this.”
During the Oct. 8 ceremony, the Honorable Alan Estevez, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, presented 12 Meritorious Civilian Service Awards and 33 Superior Civilian Service Awards to members of the multi-agency team that completed the historic mission on Aug. 18. They safely and securely destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s highly toxic chemicals in 42 days, without any reportable accidents or releases to the environment.
“Beyond your expertise and skill set, it was your willingness to extend beyond your comfort zone, to take on new roles and responsibilities, and keep safety at the forefront of your thoughts and actions that made the difference,” Blades addressed his team. “You looked out for one another. You collaborated and problem solved and established a rhythm to get the job done.
“As any operator of this group can tell you, it was not easy,” Blades said. “Everyone went above and beyond and worked outside the box. Apollo 13 had nothing on you,” he said as he looked at his team.
Answering the Call
These federal civilians were the highly trained field operators, technicians and chemists who had dedicated themselves to ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction ever since joining ECBC in their respective careers. When the call came from DoD in December 2012 to develop a transportable WMD elimination technology, the crew wasted no time in developing the innovative Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS). As a part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, ECBC worked with members of Team CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives), a cluster of DoD organizations located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground dedicated to countering WMD, to develop the transportable neutralization technology in less than six months. ECBC spearheaded the design and manufacturing of the FDHS, as well as the chemistry behind the neutralization process that met the 99.9 percent destruction rate standard set by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“The FDHS had the smoothest transition from a prototype to an operating system that I have ever seen in my 36 years at ECBC,” said George Roberts, ECBC chemical engineer. “To get a perspective of the magnitude of this accomplishment, consider that when we destroyed the stockpile of mustard agent at APG, we built a factory complex that spanned 18 acres. The FDHS was just 700 feet by 100 feet.”
When compared to other chemical demilitarization missions, it was an incredible accomplishment, noted Carmen Spencer, the Joint Program Officer for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD). According to Spencer, the amount of chemical agent destroyed during the FDHS mission was three times more than the stockpile destroyed at APG year ago, and that took 34 months to eliminate. Indeed, the future of WMD elimination has arrived, and with it, a new way of working: interagency collaboration and fast track acquisition.
A Complete System of Systems
Two units of the FDHS were installed on the MV Cape Ray (pictured at right), which was specially retrofitted to accommodate the self-sufficient, redundant system, including nearly a dozen critical components: water pumps, water tanks, system air compressors, waste containers, reagents, an onsite laboratory, breathing air compressors, chemical agent filtration systems, power generators and distribution, and storage containers.
Prior to departing for international waters, the crew conducted several sea trials to ensure the stability of the FDHS while operating in turbulent waters. Once leaving Portsmouth, Va., in January 2014, the crew continued to take measurements of ship vibrations at different speeds during the trans-Atlantic voyage. Special reinforcements were needed to secure the equipment, and engineers provided extensive welding, fabrication and integration of systems upon arrival in Rota, Spain. There, they conducted various safety and training exercises, including emergency response scenarios and practice runs of system operations. It took four months for all of Syria’s declare chemical weapons stockpile to be transported out of the country and transloaded onto the Cape Ray. The start of operations finally commenced in early July.
Jason Adamek, the lead engineer from ECBC’s Advanced Design and Manufacturing division, was most impressed by the fast pace in which the chemical agent was processed and how readily the team adapted to the unexpected conditions onboard the ship.
“We neutralized 600 metric tons in 42 days,” he said with visible pride. “We designed the system anticipating that most of the agent would be in the form of HD mustard agent, but instead we had a lot more agent in the form of the DF sarin precursor than we expected. We knew that it was highly caustic so we had to determine just the right ratio of sodium hydroxide to mix it with so that it wouldn’t corrode the storage containers.”
Life Onboard the Cape Ray
Crews worked in 12-hour shifts to maintain 24/7 operations. During an off-shift, people tried to connect with family back home via email or Skype, as well as tried to catch up on sleep. Living quarters in a 40-foot-by-8-foot Connex freight container held four people. According to Chuck Kyle, while these living conditions were not typical, he was proud to see how well the group adjusted to the tight space.
“That was pretty impressive to me,” he said. Kyle was one of the FDHS technical operators who spent his shift inside the engineering control structures that housed the FDHS units. He incorporated feedback from onsite laboratory personnel and was primarily responsible for managing the hydrolysis skid. He adjusted valves that controlled the flow, pressure and temperature gauges, added reagents to the neutralization process, and monitored agent chemistries during high volume throughput. To keep safe, Kyle wore personnel protective equipment including skin, respiratory and eye protection, which added to the heat he endured while in the 100-degree enclosure.
Safety was the No.1 priority during the mission. Specialists from ECBC drew on their vast experiences running operations on land to deal with the added uncertainties and nuances of safely neutralizing chemical agents on a moving vessel at sea. The unprecedented nature of using a maritime environment increased the risk and safety elements of an already dangerous job. As a result, the operations safety team consolidated maritime, Army and Occupational Safety and Health Administration protocols into common pre-mission communication documents such as the Standing Operating Procedure and Safety, Health, Emergency Response Plan. The preparation of those vital documents involved coordinating with other organizations involved in the mission and communicating possible changes and augmentations as often as necessary.
“Since this was the first time that such a mission was conducted on a ship at sea, there was some degree of hesitation at the beginning,” said Brandon Dusick, chemist. “We had to make sure that we could really do something like this. And now that we have proven it can be done at sea, there won’t be any more hesitation in the future.”
Dusick often he reminded himself of the historic magnitude of the mission, but once it got started, he said it was all business working the midnight to noon shift. When he wasn’t working, he was catching up on television shows and sleep, and repeated the pattern for a few months straight.
“It feels good that we were involved in a mission that was the first of its kind. Being a part of it was a great experience,” he said. “I personally got to do things I don’t typically get to do, such as run batches in addition to the sample analysis. I had an opportunity to process agent with the team and it allowed me to see a whole different side of the operation. It expanded my level of expertise and made me more valuable to the team.”
What Leaders Are Saying
The degree of difficulty for this mission was incredibly high and yet the expectation was to make it look easy. After all, this was what ECBC’s Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Unit had become known for. Missions like this are what helped the Center build a reputation as the nation’s premier resource for chemical demilitarization operations. Now, in the wake of a safe and successful mission that was as every bit unknown as it was historic, ECBC has proven that the future of WMD elimination is already here.
“At the time, no one envisioned a shipboard operation, but when that became the option of choice, you didn’t blink,” said Rebecca Hersman, Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. “You just got it done and we couldn’t be more proud.
“Throughout the effort, you have demonstrated what has always made the U.S. Army special. You were asked to step up and you did so as quiet professionals who never sought the spotlight but only focused on the mission. As a result of your efforts, these chemicals will never be used to kill or injure a human being.”
This mission has received attention at the highest levels of the United States government, in addition to the international community. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and many others recognized the completion of the mission and congratulated the crew on a job well done. Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons on behalf of the international community has not only made the world a safer place, but has shown that the United States can lead unprecedented efforts to eliminate threats as they emerge.
“It’s a very dangerous world out there,” said U.S. Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD). “The things that are happening throughout the world are scary. We were called on because of our expertise to do something very important, not only for the United States of America, but for the world.” I95