The United States military announced in 1984 that they had signed an international treaty committing them to destroying all of the country’s stored chemical weapons. This is how many residents of Madison County, Kentucky, home of the Bluegrass Army Depot, first learned that over 500 tons of nerve agents were being stored in their community.
These are dangerous substances; one drop of VX gas on a man’s hand will kill him in less than three minutes. The army intended to either incinerate them, releasing gasses of unknown toxicity and composition, or transport them elsewhere. Citizens were concerned that the incineration process would have serious consequences for the county’s 90,000 residents, particularly at the middle school, which was less than two miles from the depot.
This concern sparked a grassroots movement that has lasted nearly three decades. In this David and Goliath story, ordinary citizens spoke up and collaborated with the Pentagon and elected officials from both parties. Their fight established a new standard for chemical weapon disposal, the effects of which reverberated around the world and are now being realized in their own Appalachian community.
Even grassroots efforts require leadership, and Madison County resident Craig Williams has spent the majority of his adult life working to build coalitions. He is a Vietnam veteran who has become an international expert on chemical weapons and has testified at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is a grandfather and a beloved soccer coach, as well as the 2006 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
This movement was framed by Williams and other leaders in terms of the health effects of incineration and the right to community self-determination. Their big tent had room for everyone who cared about this issue, and organizations as diverse as the Kentucky Medical Association, local real estate agents, colleges, and members of Kentucky’s multimillion-dollar horse industry jumped on board.
“We all care about where we live,” Williams told the Daily Yonder in an interview.
Protesting wasn’t enough for the leaders. Legislative work started with advocating for the passage of a state statute requiring strict permitting requirements. On a national level, Williams nurtured a strong working relationship with Senator Mitch McConnell.
“My number one rule is that I always know what I’m talking about,” Williams said. “That is why McConnell, an ex-hippie, works with me.” I am completely accurate, and he trusts me on this matter. We work together.”
Instead of NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” the group chose NOPE, or “Not On Planet Earth.” It was more than just a philosophical approach; they knew they couldn’t win on their own. They collaborated with citizens in Oregon, Colorado, Indiana, Arkansas, Maryland, Alabama, and Utah, as well as Russian representatives, to form the Chemical Weapons Working Group.
“Remoteness is a state of mind,” said Williams about the rural location of many of the sites. “The disposition of chemical weapons is a world problem. They shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard.”
Strategically, Kentucky leaders understood that it was their responsibility to find a different solution. They hired scientists to investigate both the negative effects of incineration and the feasibility of alternative disposal methods. A chemical neutralization process, in which nerve agents are put into liquids rather than released as vapors, emerged as the frontrunner. While not perfect, it provides a much higher level of security.
This alternative process’s widespread acceptance was transformative. The Pentagon began to view citizens as partners rather than adversaries. “Once we got everyone rowing in the same direction, there was a metamorphosis of the us versus them scenario we had been stuck in for 16 years,” Williams explained.
When representatives from Russia attended the first Chemical Weapons Working Group meeting, the Madison County movement went global. The working group then dispatched a group of 14 Americans to Russia. They issued an international statement and agreed to collaborate to find better methods of chemical weapons disposal. The stories of 5,000 Russian demonstrators who built a tent city to protest the first government incineration encouraged Americans. Williams and other leaders met with the Russian government, and the Russian government quickly decided on a chemical neutralization system.