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News | March 25, 2021

DTRA Accomplishes Chemical Weapons Treaty Mission during COVID-19 Pandemic

By Darnell Gardner Defense Threat Reduction Agency

FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- International arms control treaties and agreement protocols involve activities that place operatives and inspectors up close and personal with some of the world’s most dangerous weaponized threat agents. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) worked closely with the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Threat Reduction and Arms Control (TRAC), the U.S. State Department and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Technical Secretariat to develop procedures that allowed for safe and continued Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty monitoring activities.

When global leaders began enacting broad sweeping travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deliberate suspension of most on-site treaty verification activities reluctantly took place.  

“Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty provisions requires DTRA and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to continue their 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year, on-site treaty verification mission activities,” stated Mr. Chuck Rice, lead for DTRA’s CWC treaty implementation activities. “Despite travel restrictions, our team continued its work at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (PCAPP), Colorado, and the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP), Kentucky, throughout the pandemic.”

As detailed in the CWC treaty, the United States is obligated to destroy all of its chemical weapons stockpiles. The OPCW exercises the responsibility to observe and verify chemical munition destruction though continuous on-site monitoring. DTRA members assigned to chemical weapons treaty implementation duties, escort OPCW inspectors when conducting on-site inspection activities to ensure CWC treaty and federal guideline compliance.

“The OPCW typically has five inspectors present at each destruction site performing continuous on-site inspection of destruction,” stated LTC Bradley Stremlau, DTRA's CWC treaty operations officer. “As a result of COVID-19 limitations, OPCW inspectors increased inspection duration from six- to eight-week rotations. In addition, the number of inspectors reduced from five to four due to a shortage of inspectors, quarantine requirements, and extended deployments. Inspectors also transitioned to a day shift only schedule from the usual 24-hour onsite requirements. In a newly devised approach to minimize possible COVID-19 infection, inspectors observed night shift activities utilizing virtual platforms.”

The DTRA team worked collaboratively to institute pandemic mitigation measures to ensure force protection for themselves, visiting OPCW inspectors, and military personnel in charge of chemical weapons destruction. Inspectors used alternate points of entry and exit such as Atlanta, Detroit, and Dallas instead of the using the official Washington Dulles point of entry due to flight availability and to mitigate potential personnel exposure to COVID-19. Arriving inspectors underwent 14-day quarantine upon arrival in the U.S., at the hotel near each site. Inspectors underwent COVID testing, during inbound and outbound travel.

According to Mr. John Bettenhausen, a DTRA treaty compliance specialist at the Pueblo plant, members continually adapted to COVID-19 conditions while keeping employee and OPCW inspectors safe. DTRA maintained a zero infection rate among visiting OPCW inspectors.

The Agency successfully supported OPCW inspectors during multiple four week-long chemical weapons storage facility inspections at Pueblo and Blue Grass. These inspections took place in August 2020 and October 2020 to verify that the only chemical weapons removed from the storage facilities were those transported to destruction facilities. In addition, DTRA facilitated and managed the Organisations’ final engineering review for a recently installed static detonation chamber, and supported an OPCW annual destruction records review at Blue Grass Army Depot.

“The hard work and dedication of the on-site escorts as well as our other DTRA members here at Ft. Belvoir has been essential in allowing the U.S. to meet its treaty obligations under the CWC,” stated David Musgrave, DTRA’s director for on-site inspection activities.

To date, the United States has destroyed approximately 96 percent of its 27,770 metric ton chemical weapons stockpile with anticipation of completing the entire effort by 2023.


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