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From ab758@virgin.vip.vi Thu Nov 16 10:37:49 2000
Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000 21:34:17 -0600 (CST)
From: Mark Graffis <ab758@virgin.vip.vi>
Subject: Chemical arsenals litter the world's backyard
Article: 109035
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Chemical arsenals litter the world's backyard

By Jean-Michel Cousteau, Los Angeles Times Sunday 12 November 2000

As I write, 140 nations have signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention. When the world's biggest chemical weapon stockpilers, the United States and Russia, ratified this treaty in 1997, it marked the end of 12 years of difficult negotiation. It set a process in motion that quickly made inroads in the world's mountain of chemical weapons.

Today, most people probably think that the convention solved the issue once and for all. But it hasn't.

Actions have lagged far behind the convention's noble pronouncements. Designed and produced in utmost secrecy, the size and status of the world's chemical arsenals is still not widely appreciated. And without public knowledge and public pressure for change, they may never be fully destroyed.

Chemical weapons are humanity at its most merciless, cowardly and short-sighted. They are a relic of the 20th century, when war between professional armies turned into the intimidation and slaughter of innocent civilians.

They are also a major environmental toxin whose production, storage and eventual destruction pose as many risks as their potential use in combat. They are essentially small, self-contained chemical spills intentionally created for the purpose of mass destruction. Disposing of them safely is quickly becoming one of the major environmental challenges of our time.

Ask anyone about chemical weapons, and they will think of World War I. But the chemical arsenals of today are actually based on developments of the 1930s and '50s, long after civilized societies knew better.

In recent times, the Iran-Iraq war and the rise of terrorism in Japan and elsewhere renewed our acquaintance with the major types of chemical weapons. They include: choking agents such as chlorine and chloropicrin, which cause the lungs of the victim to fill with fluid, leading to death by drowning; blister agents like sulfur mustard gas and lewisite, which scar the windpipes and lungs, burn mucus membranes and blind the eyes; blood agents like cyanide and arsine, which destroy the blood's ability to utilize oxygen, strangling the heart; and nerve agents like sarin, VX and tabun, which cause paralysis of the heart and lungs.

The convention sets a timetable for the destruction of these weapons. It states that all arsenals must be completely destroyed by 2007. An extension may be granted, but only until 2012.

At the moment, these deadlines are a fairy tale. According to the nongovernmental organization Green Cross International, a variety of constraints are conspiring to slow the process.

Some limitations are technical. Disposal is thought to be best achieved by incineration, but experience indicates that no one method will work for all chemical agents. At the present time, the technology simply doesn't exist to dispose of all agents by the deadline set in the convention.

Political limitations are proving just as serious. At the chemical disposal sites of Shchuch'ye in Russia and Tooele in the United States, incineration is not exactly popular among the local inhabitants. Many feel isolated or even persecuted by their governments. Fears of an accident are widespread and heightened by occasional technical malfunctions.

Financial limitations loom even larger.

Destroying chemical weapons is expensive, much more expensive than building them. The cost of disposing of the 70,000 tons of chemical weapons owned by the United States and Russia is estimated to be $25 billion. Russia, with 40,000 tons, faces a bill in the vicinity of $6 billion. Yet there is virtually no money domestically to pay this. The United States, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries, have pledged support, but so far only some $240 million has actually found its way into the disposal program, roughly 6 percent of the total needed.

In 1999, the United States, Congress took another step backward by cutting funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This line item had enabled the United States to help Russia destroy thousands of tons of chemical weapons. This year, despite a major effort on behalf of President Clinton, the Congress deleted funding again.

Does it really all come down to money? In part, yes. Big promises of action are made, but the money to undertake those actions is not appropriated, and nothing happens. Nothing positive, that is.

Negative things happen inexorably. As the clock ticks, the environmental and psychological effects of living in a world with chemical weapons mount. The longer they are around, the greater grows the likelihood that they will leak or be stolen or sold on the black market and used in the service of a strongly held belief.

But behind the money, the forces of habit and mentality are at work. Born in an era of secrecy and fear, chemical weapons remain confined to the deepest, darkest recesses of our collective horror and shame. To deal with them is also to deal with a part of ourselves that we have not entirely banished.

It is easier to pretend these things simply don't exist.

That is why information is so important. It empowers us to conquer the fears that block our progress. Chemical weapons disposal does face daunting financial, technical and time challenges. But these can be overcome if the issue becomes more visible, and the task becomes a real priority.

Time and again, whether it's human rights or ozone depleting chemicals or land mines, we see progress only when the pressure of public opinion is brought to bear upon elected leaders.

Ecology tells us that chemical weapons are in everyone's backyard. It's time for public opinion to say the same thing.