2nd Chemical Battalion team destroys WWII munitions on Panama’s San Jose Island

Mike Rowan, unexploded ordnance supervisor with the CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity of the 20th CBRNE Command, Aberdeen, Maryland, photographs the fuse on a 1,000 pound chemical munition on San Jose Island, Panama. Rowan was one of the subject matter experts who traveled to the island to destroy chemical weapons belonging to the United States that had been lying dormant for more than 70 years. Photo by Kerry Jones, CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity

Soldiers from the 48th Chemical Brigade recently applied their expertise when they participated in a mission to destroy eight chemical munitions located on Panama’s San Jose Island.

As early as 1978, according to a 2015 report prepared by the Assistant Secretary of the Army, the Panamanians raised the question of potential hazards and the feasibility of removing any potential chemical munitions on the island. As Panama acceded to the Chemical Warfare Convention in 1998, San Jose Island was looked at for development and the issue of the potential hazards was raised again. The report states that in 2001, a private company surveyed the island and documented the presence of chemical warfare items, some of which were of U.S. origin.

In May 2013, the government of Panama requested assistance from the United States in assessing eight munitions suspected to be filled with chemical agents. The following year CARA, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Analytical and Remediation Activity of the 20th CBRNE Command, deployed to San Jose Island with U.S. Army South to conduct a detailed assessment of the eight World War II-era chemical munitions declared by the Government of Panama, and verified to be of U.S. origin. The Army conducted a detailed munitions site characterization in June 2014, and completed assessment in January 2016, to determine the potential chemical fill of the munitions and how best to safely dispose of them.

In September, members of the 2nd CBRN Battalion, out of Fort Hood, Texas, arrived on San Jose Island and joined a team of subject matter experts from U.S. Army South, CARA, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Directorate, as well as aviation, weather, medical, sustainment, and communication personnel, to destroy, by detonation, the chemical weapons that had been lying dormant for more than 70 years.

San Jose Island is located in the Pacific Ocean off the southern coast of Panama, approximately 55 miles from Panama City.

“Because of the island’s location relative to the mainland, the task force conducted countless rehearsals during the preparation and execution phases of the mission,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Siebold, commander, 2nd CBRN Battalion, 48th Chemical Brigade, 20th CBRNE Command. This included setting the conditions for safe execution of the mission and taking accountability of all personnel on the island.

“From real-time hazard plotting to restricting movement on the island of DOD [Department of Defense] personnel and island inhabitants, mission execution was only possible when the required safety conditions were in place,” said Siebold.

The 2nd CBRN Battalion served as the tactical mission command headquarters for the destruction of the chemical munitions, said Siebold. This included preparing and conducting the tactical actions needed to safely achieve the strategic end states working with Army South, the Army Service Component Command echelon, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Government of Panama.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty, the government of Panama declared the existence of these munitions to the OPCW and was responsible for their verified destruction.

To execute these actions, Siebold said his team conducted occupation activities of the island and at the munition sites. This consisted of preparing the munitions for detonation, the team’s re-entry into possible contaminated environments, and verifying that chemical and explosive hazards no longer existed. Additionally, as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty obligation, the team recovered and packaged the munition fragments for proper disposal in the United States.

Another element that played a larger part in the safe detonation of the weapons was Mother Nature. The eight chemical weapons slated for detonation had been sitting in the lush vegetation of the island for more than 70 years.

“The primary concern we had of the munitions and their chemical component stability,” Siebold said, “was if the munition was detonated – could the agent be released without being a hazard?

The most challenging condition to align with mitigating the safe destruction of the munitions was to ensure the proper amount of rain was present at the time of the detonation to ensure whatever volatility of the chemical components existed was further reduced by water and time,” he said.

According to Siebold, the actual destruction of all munitions took approximately 12 days to include detonation, re-entry into those areas, and verification.

“The tempo of the operation was influenced primarily by having the right weather conditions. Rain during the detonation and re-entry, and lack of rain to verify that the hazard was negated,” he said.

The timeline of the execution closely mirrored the planning timelines established in advance.

“We destroyed the munitions in four groups to minimize time requirements, maximize precipitation, mitigate risk and ensure all resources were safe,” said Siebold.

By Suzan Holl
20th CBRNE Command