Gov. William Donald Schaefer this week raised the hopes of Harford residents fighting a plan to burn chemical weapons agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground by asking the Army to re-think its plan for an incinerator at the base.
In a letter dated Sept. 17 to Army Undersecretary John Shannon, Schaefer recommends the Army review its February 1988 decision to build an incinerator for burning mustard agent at the base's Edgewood Area, saying recent developments call the decision into question.
Schaefer takes no specific position in the letter for or against burning mustard agent as part of the Army's chemical demilitarization program.
"I think what he's saying is since the Army announced it was committed to on-site incineration a lot of issues have come to light," said Raymond C. Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor.
Among the issues Schaefer says in his letter the Army should look at when reviewing the decision are the relative risk of on-site incineration, opposed to transporting the agent to another incinerator site; the growing population near the incinerator site, and congressional pressure to burn hazardous waste in the incinerator and seven others like it planned for domestic Army bases.
Although Schaefer did not take a stand against the incinerator -- which federal law requires the Army dismantle and dispose of as hazardous waste after APG's mustard agent stockpile is burned -- his letter buoyed the spirits of incinerator foes.
"That's wonderful. That's terrific," said Linda A. Koplovitz, president of Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, a civic group fighting the incinerator.
The group has argued the 40,000 people who live within 6 miles of the site could not be evacuated if there would be an accident.
"I read that as a positive step by the governor in favor of the citizens' concerns," she said. "The governor has always been very cautious making a decision regarding environmental issues."
Group members met with the governor about a year ago to talk about the incinerator, Koplovitz said.
"It has taken him this long to review the statistics and take a favorable step," she said. "I would consider it one more victory on the part of the citizens."
Harford Delegate Eileen M. Rehrmann, another foe of the APG incinerator plan, also took the news of the letter as a positive step. Rehrmann is the Democratic Party nominee for county executive in the Nov. 6 general election.
The governor's office, she said, has very strong ties to Maryland's Congressional delegation in Washington, where the decision will be made whether to burn hazardous waste at the incinerators. Current law mandates only chemical agents be burned in the incinerators. Congress would have to change the law to allow any other waste to be burned.
Like Schaefer, Rehrmann said the Army should reconsider the decision because of recent events.
First, she said, the Army safely has been transporting chemical weapons agent in West Germany by rail and truck for disposal at the Army's chemical weapons prototype incinerator in Johnston Atoll, near Hawaii. However, a federal judge last month issued an injunction requested by environmental activist Greenpeace USA, putting a temporary hold on the shipments.
Greenpeace claims the Army's environmental impact statements for the Johnston Atoll incinerator are not comprehensive and fail to address alternatives to incineration.
A second piece of new information mentioned by Rehrmann was the possibility of using the incinerator to burn hazardous waste after the chemical weapons stockpile is destroyed. Earlier this year the federal General Accounting Office recommended using the incinerator to decontaminate mustard agent containers and metal building parts.
This summer, the Army awarded a contract to MITRE Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., to study alternate uses for the incinerators, including burning hazardous waste.
Marilyn J. Tischbin, spokeswoman for the Army's office of the program manager for chemical demilitarization, based at APG, said the Army likely will address concerns listed in Schaefer's letter when it does a site-specific environmental impact study for the APG incinerator.
The Army will start gathering information for the study in November and have a draft study ready by next August, Tischbin said.