Jeffrey LewisQafëmollë

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.



  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > Many of the containers were leaking salts of heavy metals, primarily arsenic, lead and mercury.

    Could someone who knows the chemistry of CW agents and their disposition comment on that, please? Lewisite is an arsenic compound, but is it what’s involved here? And the Pb and Hg?

    • Cthippo (History)

      It would help a lot if we knew more about the original materials supplied and the process used to destroy them.

      The arsenic tends to indicate Lewisite or (less likely) another organoarsenate compound. This could have been the agent itself, though Lewisite was also used as an antifreeze compound with sulfur mustard agents to keep the mustards from freezing. Another possibility is that the agent is Adamsite which is classified as a riot control agent rather as a lethal chemical agent though it can kill.

      Typically these agents are destroyed by mixing with sodium hydroxide (lye) or sodium hypochlorite (bleach) which oxidizes the chemical agents into relatively innocuous substances for disposal. The US system Jeffrey linked to uses this technology, working at about 90 degrees C in a titanium drum.

      The lead and mercury salts are an interesting conundrum, but it’s easy to over-think this. We’re talking about bulk agent stored in barrels, not completed munitions. Unless there is something really strange going on here, the heavy metals, except for the arsenic, probably didn’t come from the chemical agent. On the other hand, decontaminating machinery used in handling the agents, things that might contain lead acid batteries, mercury switches such as thermostats, etc etc, when washed with bleach and lye will crate small amounts of metal salts.

      While I take Jeffrey’s larger point that if we want help with these problems we probably shouldn’t leave messes behind, I also think it’s easy to lose sight of the scale of the problem. Heavy metal contamination is bad, but it’s bad on a scale of abandoned high school chemistry lab bad, not abandoned chemical weapons depot bad. We’re talking about a couple of truckloads of industrial waste which any decent commercial hazardous waste company should be able to handle.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Ugh, this always happens. I push “Submit” and 30 seconds later find information that invalidates some of what I just wrote.

      First, from the OPCW website…

      “Albania is the first nation completely and verifiably to destroy all of its chemical weapons by eliminating in total 16,678 kilograms of chemical warfare agent. The Albanian stockpile included mustard, lewisite, mustard/lewisite mixture, adamsite, and chloroacetophenone agents.”

      Chloroacetophenone in another riot control agent with the NATO designation CN, It’s commonly known under the tradename “Chemical mace”.

      Second, the technology used in Albania was thermal destruction rather than chemical. This is somewhat more complex, but produces less waste. the company that built the system for Albania, Eisenmann AG of Germany, typically builds things like annealing ovens for metal casting and thermal treaters for effluent gases from industrial plants. According to the cable they had trouble when first operating the unit which caused damage due to human error.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Could there be drones patrolling the area? That’s what’s been done for Kazakhstan’s “Plutonium Mountain” sites. Some sort of rapid reaction force might be needed as well.

    Metal containers are not a good choice for long-term storage of this kind of liquid waste. Either something else was planned for them, or there were no plans and the contractor took the easy way out.

    Hard to say where the lead and mercury are coming from. It would be useful to know what levels. Traces could be from impurities in the agents.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      If you could click on Wikileaks, they settled on plastic containers inside the conexes. The original steel drums sucked exactly as much as you say.

      No idea on drones. Possibly. Still, it seems like a complicated solution compared to sucking it up and building the hazardous waste facility.

      There is some nearby ground scarring that might be to bury something.

  3. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    BTW, Albania is now being mentioned as the destination for the Syrian chemicals.

  4. Fred Miller (History)

    This story is not so much about the technology as it is about the diplomacy and especially the national will behind it. There will always be a temptation to do the fun stuff, the exciting stuff, the glorious stuff and the profitable stuff, and leave the thankless, dirty stuff for someone else.

    In Iraq, we had lots of enthusiasm for destroying the Iraqi military, but didn’t bother guarding their ammo dumps once they’d surrendered. In Libya we were hot to carry out airstrikes, but not very interested about the fate of Khadafi’s huge stocks of small and not-so-small arms.

    Senator Lugar’s involvement was far beyond what his constituents were requiring of him, and he deserves high credit, but if we want other politicians to follow his lead, we need to make many more Americans aware of the threats posed by the excesses of modern militarism, and of the advantages to our national security, economic stability, and diplomatic reputation that reward our investment in cleanig up dangerous messes when we find them, whether or not we played a role in making them.

  5. Philipp (History)

    Um, drones? And a rapid reaction force? We’re talking about some moderately hazardous industrial waste, as Jeffrey rightly notes. That’s not to take anyone off the hook for the failure to deal with the aftermath of the CW destruction–EU, I’m looking at you–but just because the stuff came from CW destruction doesn’t mean it poses CW-like risks now. Or am I missing something?

    More broadly, if Albania does turn out to be a destruction site for Syrian CW, as is being reported, that presumably bodes well for this material finally being dealt with as well.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      My worry is more what scavengers might do the site, inadvertently poisoning themselves and others. Even the scrap value of a shipping container is significantly more than the monthly average wage ($~350/month) in Albania. In general, dangerous sites need to be secured with more than sign saying “Keep out.”

      Let’s hope Albania takes the Syrian stockpile and the EU steps up to the plate on that Hazardous Waste disposal facility.

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      The “rapid reaction force” could be the local cops – anyone to disrupt attempts to do stuff to the containers.

      There can be traces of chemical agents left in hydrolysis or thermal destruction residues. And just stuff that is equivalent to hazardous chemical wastes like solvents and manufacturing wastes.

      Totally agree about scavengers – they’re the ones the drones at Semipalatinsk are looking for and hopefully deterring.

      BTW, Jeffrey – I’m a bit confused about incineration having been used. That wouldn’t ordinarily make aqueous wastes, although perhaps these are from cleanup of the destruction apparatus? Seems like a lot for that, though.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am confused to. They used the Eisenmann Turaktor:

      And then there is this:

      “The proposed start of operations for the destruction of Albania’s stockpile of chemical weapons, scheduled to have begun in July 2006, has been deferred due to delays in the delivery of the Eisenmann Thermal Treatment System (ETTS). During tests of the ETTS in Stuttgart, Germany, in April, the incineration equipment to be used in the Albanian CW destruction was damaged. The damage was caused by excess heat and pressure buildup encountered due to operator error, which prevented cooling water from reaching the combustion gas quench system. Modifications to the ETTS are being made at the Eisenmann facility to minimize the possibility of a repeat occurrence. ”

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      The aqueous solutions must be from the combustion gas quench system. From your second link:

      Elaborate flue gas purification and waste water treatment processes ensure that the reaction products are safely eliminated.

      The incineration will give acidic gases like HF, HCl, and sulfur oxides. So the flue gas system will have to use basic solutions to capture them. I’ll correct my comment above to say that there should be very little of anything organic, depending on the completeness of the combustion, which should be awfully close to 100%, if the Eisenman claims are accurate and the reactor is run correctly. Obviously that last can be messed up.

      So there are fluorides, chlorides, and sulfates in the solutions. Very corrosive, but we already knew that.

    • Cthippo (History)

      I’m thinking more aqueous solutions from decontaminating PPE and equipment during the demobe phase of the operation.

      The incinerator makes a certain amount of sense given that the Field Deployable hydrolysis system linked in the article generates 5 gallons of waste for every gallon of agent neutralized.