US Prepares to Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons at Sea

A U.S. cargo vessel equipped with special gear could be neutralizing some of Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons at sea come January.

Once started, the process of neutralizing 500 tons of the chemical components used to make mustard gas and sarin gas could be completed within 45 to 90 days, Pentagon officials said today.

No final decisions have been made yet by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but it appears increasingly likely that the agency will accept an offer from the United States to destroy the dangerous chemicals at sea.

The reserve merchant vessel MV Cape Ray, currently in Norfolk, Va., is in the process of being equipped with two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems, Pentagon officials said in a press briefing. These systems add water and bleach to dangerous chemicals, converting them into an inert liquid byproduct.

Though this process has never been carried out at sea, the officials said hydrolysis is "a proven technology" that will result in "a very low risk operation."

About 100 personnel will be aboard the ship, 60 of them Defense Department civilians working with the hydrolysis systems, officials said. The rest will include security contractors and OPCW inspectors to verify that the chemicals are being neutralized.

The Cape Ray will undergo sea trials in a few weeks so the hydrolysis systems can undergo operational testing, officials said, with the expectation that it will be ready to sail in January. However, there are still gaps in the OPCW's plans for where the neutralization of the Syrian chemicals will actually take place.

The OPCW's timeline calls for the 500 metric tons of "priority one" chemicals to be removed from Syria by Dec. 31. An additional 800 metric tons of less dangerous chemical precursors will be destroyed by one of 35 companies that have bid for the contract, officials said.

The "priority one" chemicals will be taken to the Syrian port of Latakia for loading onto about 150 shipping containers to be placed onto a ship from an as-yet undetermined country, officials said.

It remains unclear where the Cape Ray would pick up the containers as the OPCW has yet to find a host country willing to allow one of its ports to be used for the transfer of the chemicals.

Once a port is chosen, a transfer of the chemicals onto the Cape Ray could be completed within 48 hours, officials estimated. The vessel would then depart for an undetermined off-shore location, where the hydrolysis could begin.

The "effluent" by-product will not be dumped into the ocean, but would be stored aboard the ship until a commercial company is selected to dispose of the by-product either through incineration or some other means, officials said.