This is the spot where the Defense Threat Reduction Agency eliminated Albania’s chemical weapons stockpile.
I’ve spent the last few weeks ruminating on the challenges of finding a third party to accept Syria’s chemical weapons.
Most Syria’s stockpile is in bulk form (mustard and precursors for sarin and VX.) The current plan is to consolidate the precursors at a site near one a port such as Latakia or Tartous, then ship the materials to a third country for destruction by mobile assets like the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. Norway recently declined to be that third country. Others have made it clear they are not interested.
One of the challenges, I think, is relates to a larger problem in implementing our nonproliferation policies. We’re good at doing the parts we like, but we often leave behind a mess. As a result, states that cooperate on nonproliferation issues aren’t always left feeling good about having cooperated.
Consider the case of Albania.
In 2002, Albania announced that it had discovered 16 tons of Chinese supplied chemical weapons dating to the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha at a bunker near Qafëmollë (sometimes rendered as Qaf Molle). Here are some pictures of the bunker and the munitions, which is located at: 41°20’43.36″N, 19°57’21.90″E
Tirana appealed for help. (Matthew Tompkins has questioned the veracity of the “discovery” story although that does not change our timeline or Tirana’s experiences.)
It took a while, including an attention grabbing visit by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, who ultimately wrote a pair of Washington Post stories on the discovery and disposition of Albania’s chemical weapons stockpile, with a nice image of a guard near a (now demolished) pill box. Joby gives excellent driving directions to the site, by the way. That story upset the locals, but seemed to do the trick in Washington. A few years later, Senator Lugar would be encouraged not to say too much about the process for fear the natives might get restless.
The United States, thanks to the leadership of then-Senator Richard Lugar, ultimately paid for security at the site, including fences and armed guards, as well as for deployment of a mobile incinerator. DTRA contracted with Eisenmann AG for the incinerator unit and URS to manage the project. (The incinerator was placed in a tent on a concrete slab next to the building and several underground bunkers.)
The United States, according to Bob Mikulak, ultimately “contributed over 45 million dollars to assist the Republic of Albania in eliminating 16.6 metric tons of chemical weapons agents at Qaf Molle, destroying 100 percent of its stockpile in a verified manner” by July 2007.
Sadly, that’s not the end of the story. Here we pick up the story based on cables from Wikileaks. What about all the hazardous waste?
The Albanian Ministry of Defense had agreed to take it, planning to construct a hazardous waste storage facility with assistance from the European Union. That process went nowhere. The US complained to the Europeans, but the EU canceled the project in the wake of local opposition.
The hazardous waste sat in containers on the concrete pad. The containers started to leak. In late 2007-early 2008, the US hired an environmental remediation firm, Savant Environmental, “who determined the problem was worse than originally thought. Many of the containers were leaking salts of heavy metals, primarily arsenic, lead and mercury. In addition, the conexes were not waterproof, and since contaminated components had not been properly cleaned before being put into the conexes, condensation and water leakage were dissolving some of the contaminants and causing them to leak out onto the ground.”
Savant Environmental repackaged the waste and placed it in 20 shipping containers. There it sits, visible from space. Good for twenty years. Well, fifteen now. Ish.
Those containers are still sitting on the concrete pad, out in the open. Here is a satellite image from August.
It’s hard to say about security on site. I don’t see any evidence of security, but perhaps the guards get dropped off by bus or there are electronic alarms. Still, the site seems relatively unprotected. Someone posted a picture from 400 meters up the road on August 2011, which looks to be the remains of the rest of the base connected to the chemical weapons storage site. Things look pretty deserted to me, beyond some basic fencing and signs saying “keep out.”
The stuff isn’t a chemical weapons threat any more, of course, but it is an environmental hazard. Just sitting in some shipping containers. (Did you know they were called “conexes”?)
I raise the issue because it reminds me to the saga of the M/V Mochegorsk — the cargo of Iranian munitions seized in Cyprus that later exploded. We aren’t always so great on the follow-through when it comes to nonproliferation, especially once the strictly national security part is over. I realize that individual states have to take some responsibility, but if we’re going to argue that nonproliferation is shared interest we can’t say the hazardous waste from chemical weapon demilitarization or disposing of seized munitions aren’t part of our shared responsibility.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I am criticizing the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which did more than anyone else in this saga save for maybe Dick Lugar and staff. They can’t do it all, for goodness sake. And lord knows, pressing for US assistance to Albania didn’t help Lugar win his primary. It would be nice if the Europeans stepped up on the construction of a hazardous waste facility in Albania or the Chinese agreed to make amends for selling a nasty government some nasty weapons. Or even the Russians, for propping up Joe Stalin’s buddy. I know Wikileaks hates the United States, but those leaked cables suggest Washington worked harder than any other country — even if the US wasn’t perfect all the time. The Italians complained about the risk from the site, but what did they offer?
Maybe Albania is no worse off than if it had left the chemical weapons rotting in the bunker, slowly poisoning the hillside — but that setts the bar pretty low. If we want to persuade states to take, for example, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, it would help if Albania’s story had a happy ending. And we — not just Americans, but everyone who cares about nonproliferation — should take special care that whatever country takes Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile isn’t left regretting that decision.
Cables from Wikileaks: The Italians are annoyed. Eisenmann AG suffers some setbacks. Senator Lugar visits. Explaining delays to Germans. We tell the EU to step it up. Albania has a hazardous waste problem. Things at Qafemolle are worse than we thought. Albania still has a hazardous waste problem. This is all the Chinese’s fault.
I’ve also got a nice little annotated .kmz file, but I haven’t put it up yet.