Y2K threatens Army chemical plant systems

The Army has until the end of January to devise a plan to fix serious Year 2000 problems affecting a chemical weapons disposal system designed to destroy nerve gas and blister agents, according to a recent internal Defense Department report.

According to a report published by DOD's inspector general, the Army's project manager for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System did not begin Year 2000 assessments on critical systems that monitor air quality and process data and control code until last summer and incorrectly reported the status of those systems to DOD. According to DOD Year 2000 guidance, the system assessment phase was scheduled to end on Sept. 30.

"The Army faces increased risk that it may not be able to implement corrections before the turn of the century," resulting perhaps in the "temporary closure of the Johnston Atoll [Chemical Agent] Disposal System at a weekly cost of $2 million," the IG report concluded. In addition, the program office failed to prepare the necessary Year 2000 documentation and has no contingency plans, risk management plans, system validation plan or schedule in place, according to the IG.

Johnston Atoll is located more than 700 miles southwest of Honolulu; it consists of four islands, including Johnston Island, which served as the military's atmospheric nuclear testing range for more than three decades. The Army began to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons in June 1990 and expects to complete the operations shortly after 2000.

The Army Program Office for Chemical Demilitarization at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., is responsible for approximately 90 Automatic Continuous Air Monitoring systems throughout the Johnston Atoll facility. These systems are considered mission-critical because they analyze air samples on a constant basis for dangerous levels of chemicals, and they transmit alarms when potential atmospheric contamination is detected.

The IG has criticized the Army for not making Year 2000 fixes on computers at other chemical disposal sites. In November, the IG found that the Army delayed Year 2000 fixes that control the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization plant at the Tooele Army Depot, which is 20 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The plant is one of three that the Army uses to destroy tons of nerve gas and other chemical agents. The fixes have been delayed until the end of October 1999 because the Army does not want to interfere with ongoing disposal operations at the facility.

A spokesman for the Army's Chemical Stockpile Disposal Project Office said that although it got a late start fixing the Year 2000 problem at Johnston Atoll, the program office now has a five-phase process in place and does not plan to shut down the site. However, the spokesman said the project office will not meet the March 31 deadline set by DOD.

"All of our mission-critical computer systems will be Y2K-compliant before the turn of the century. The longer these weapons are around, there is a risk...so it doesn't make any sense to shut down the system prematurely," the spokesman said.

Although the Army conducted a Year 2000 date rollover test and found that the air-monitoring systems worked without error, consultants from Raytheon Co.'s Engineers and Constructors Division stated that, based on their tests, the systems are not Year 2000-compliant. In addition, the report pointed out that the Raytheon consultants were not sure whether the monitoring devices would work properly after the Year 2000 and whether they would compromise other interfaces.

Raytheon declined to comment on the report.

The report also condemned the Army for incorrectly reporting the status of systems in its monthly report required by DOD. The Army Chemical Demilitarization program is only in the initial stages of its Year 2000 planning and still has not determined how to correct the problems with some of its critical systems, the report said.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, said examples like this, although not surprising, "make [people] skeptical of the March 31 completion date" for fixing systems for the Year 2000. Although examples like this are not the rule for DOD, "there are too many of these types of examples out there," Grkavac said.

Part of the problem, Grkavac said, is that the $3.25 billion in emergency Year 2000 funding, of which $1.1 billion was to go to DOD, is very difficult to track and may be being spent somewhat sparingly. "We're having a hard time finding out where that money is being spent," Grkavac said.

In addition, the Office of Management and the Budget, which controls the flow of emergency Year 2000 funding, may be acting "tight-fisted" with the funds and applying a very strict interpretation as to what constitutes an emergency, Grkavac said.

The spokesman for the Army's program office said the office plans to deliver an official response to the IG report by Jan. 25.


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards - https://governmentinnovationawards.com

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected