February 2001

Tropical paradise or chemical wasteland? Ten years of chemical weapons destruction comes to an end in the Pacific.

by Senior Airman Elaine Tarello, photos by Tech. Sgt. Gregory Kobashigawa

When Lt. Col. Lee Kindle found out he was heading to Johnston Air Force Base, Johnston Island, for a year-long remote assignment, he figured he’d fit right in. A self-proclaimed “small-town boy,” he thought he’d easily settle into the minicity atmosphere of the tiny one-square-mile Pacific island.

But Johnston bore little resemblance to his small-town roots in the mid-West. Instead of northeast Oklahoma’s rolling hills and roaming cattle, Kindle was greeted by concrete bunkers and a towering smoke-billowing factory.

It may appear to be a tropical island complete with sandy beaches and crystal blue waters, but Johnston Island is anything but a tropical paradise. While Kindle may have palm trees and flowering hibiscus in his front yard, in the back is a stockpile of chemical weapons, including enough deadly VX nerve agent to easily take out New York City.

“It’s definitely a lot different from where I grew up,” said Kindle, a Westville, Okla., native.

Johnston is a one-stop shop for chemical weapon incineration. Since 1990, the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System has destroyed more than 4 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents stored in more than 400,000 rockets, projectiles, bombs, mines and 1-ton containers.

Accidentally discovered in 1797 by an American sea captain, Johnston Atoll has been used by the Defense Department for everything from a World War II airfield and submarine refueling base to a high-altitude nuclear test launch site. Its isolation made it the perfect storage site for chemical weapons, so the military started dropping off unused World War II and Vietnam War-era munitions in the early 1970s. In 1985, after Congress mandated the disposal of U.S. chemical weapon stockpiles, the atoll assumed one of its most dangerous missions — the destruction of chemical weapons. Since that time, more than 6 percent of the United States’ total chemical weapons stockpile has been disposed of.

As Johnston’s deputy commander, Kindle had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders before he retired in December 2000. He was one of just 20 Air Force people stationed on the island responsible for its day-to-day operations, including oversight of the 1,180 soldiers, civilians and contractors who live and work there. “Since the population is so small and primarily civilian, I act like a city council leader,” Kindle said. “I listen to concerns and issues from all the representatives here and help everyone reach an amicable agreement.”

One of these representatives is John Isaacs, the U.S. Army Chemical Activity, Pacific, command sergeant major, who, as the senior Army enlisted person on the island, bears the weighty responsibility of overseeing the more than 220 soldiers. Isaacs and his troops have the dangerous job of transporting the volatile agents from bunkers to the plant. Since some of the weapons date back to World War II, there’s an ever-present danger of leakage.

“That’s why it’s safer to destroy the weapons here,” Isaacs said. “If we try to transport these weapons to another site, we’re running a huge risk of contamination.”

Mask slinging
But the threat of contamination still exists for Isaacs and the other Johnston Island residents. So when he heads off to work each morning, he’s wearing an M40A1 gas mask slung around his hips. These gas masks prove very handy. Just a pinprick-sized droplet of Sarin, a colorless and odorless gas destroyed on Johnston Island, will kill a human. And that’s just one of the dangerous agents in storage.

“The chemicals we’re working with are as deadly as any known to man,” he said. “But we enforce stringent safety measures.”

These measures consist of everything from protective gear to constant atmospheric monitoring, which is particularly important for workers.

Once the soldiers drop off their “garbage,” the disposal system workers take over, destroying the agents and their casings.

“It’s a thorough process,” Isaacs said. “They first punch and drain the weapons, then burn the liquid agent in a furnace at about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.”

From there, the leftover metal parts are thrown into a 3,000-degree Fahrenheit furnace. “After that, nothing is left but a rusted hulk that’s sold as scrap,” he said.

Despite the hazards of the process, it’s a testament to the workers and the safety precautions there’s never been a major chemical incident on the island. This exemplary record is helpful in putting Johnston residents’ minds at ease, particularly newcomers to the island, like Master Sgt. Pamela Farmer.

Farmer said she was a bit apprehensive when she first arrived. She had no sooner stepped off the plane from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., than she found herself in a cramped room slinging on a gas mask.

Farmer is slated to take over the services superintendent job. She will be responsible for quality assurance for all food, lodging and custodial contracts. “When the orderly room told me I was going on a remote assignment to Johnston Island, I was a bit surprised,” said Farmer, a soft-spoken Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native. “I had no idea what the Air Force did here, but I figured a base on a Pacific island couldn’t be that bad.”

But then the jokes started. “My friends said I won’t have any hair left when I come back,” she said. “But I’m the one who’s laughing now. This is a great place to be.”

In fact, if Farmer’s friends could see her now, many of them would probably say she has it made. She lives on a tropical island, surrounded by crystal blue waters and a friendly community. A stone’s throw away from her room are the docks, where she can go fishing, water skiing, jet skiing or diving year-round to her heart’s content.

“I’m taking up pottery and snorkeling,” Farmer said. “And I watched the sun set three times. I don’t remember the last time I even saw a sunset [before coming here].”

Johnston’s setting sun
But there might not be too many more opportunities. The sun is also setting for Johnston Air Force Base as it’s finally running out of chemical weapons to destroy.

“We have a little over 13,000 M23 land mines to incinerate, and then we’re done,” Isaacs said. Once the munitions are gone, the Army will verify the weapons are destroyed. Then it will close up shop and pull its people out.

And the plant? “The Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System will be cut down and run through the metal parts furnace,” Isaacs said. “It will essentially eat itself, leaving just a big furnace in its place. Then it will be up to the Air Force to take care of the rest of the cleanup.”

Kindle said it will be quite an undertaking. “It’s the Air Force’s job to clean up this island by 2004. The Air Force’s vision is to make this place environmentally safe for all species.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is particularly concerned with that vision. Back in 1926, the U.S. government designated the atoll a federal bird refuge. Since that time, the military and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked side by side.

But now that the military is pulling out, the federal agency wants its atoll back in the same condition it was found.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see the Air Force put things back as near as possible to the way things were,” said D. Lindsey Hayes, manager for the Johnston Atoll Wildlife Refuge.”

“We’re working toward that goal, too,” said Maj. David Smith, Johnston’s chief of environmental safety and health division. “There are contaminants on the island, but we’re working to render them harmless.”

These contaminants aren’t just at the plant. A failed high-altitude nuclear launch left a legacy of low-level plutonium contamination, and an old Agent Orange storage site caused some residual contamination as well.

“The contamination levels overall have been very low or nonexistent,” Smith said. “No unit or agency, whether Air Force or Army will be cleared to leave until their areas of responsibility meet Environmental Protection Agency standards. We’re working hard with the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to achieve the best outcome for everyone.”

Once turned over, Johnston Atoll’s fate will be in the hands of the Department of the Interior. “The atoll may remain completely uninhabited, or it may serve as a refuge and emergency landing runway,” Hayes said. “Only time will tell.”

In the meantime, the Air Force will work to make an incident-free transfer. A plan is under way, scheduling the Army’s departure for September and the plant’s destruction by 2003.

The end of an era? Kindle believes so. “Johnston Island has a fascinating history,” he said. “I feel fortunate that I’ll be able to witness the destruction of the last chemical weapons on the island. It will be a historical moment.”

It may be a tiny island with a “mini-city” feel, but its mission has made a huge impact. “In some small way, I feel like I’ve helped make the world a safer place,” Kindle said. “That’s very satisfying.”

Editor’s Note: The end of an era finally arrived. On Nov. 29, 2000, the Army destroyed the last chemical weapon on Johnston Island. While Isaccs left the island in December 2000, and the remaining soldiers are scheduled to leave this summer, the Air Force will stay for the long haul. Working with the Army, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, the Air Force will oversee cleanup and closure of island operations, slated for October 2003. Once the Air Force closes shop, the Department of the Interior will decide the atoll’s fate. In the meantime, Farmer and other airmen are preparing to turn in their gas masks and close the chapter on more than 65 years of military presence on Johnston Island.