Burning Debate To Resume At Meeting

Residents Challenge Army's Plan To Incinerate Chemicals At Apg

February 10, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Contributing writer

Since January 1988, all's been quiet on a U.S. Army proposal to build an incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground to destroy aging chemical warfare agents stored at the base.

That will change Tuesday night.

The Army has scheduled a public information meeting to update thecommunity on the disposal project.

Plans call for the construction of a $255 million incinerator that would be used to destroy the lethal agents, some of which are similar to the chemicals Saddam Husseinhas threatened to use in the Persian Gulf war.

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the auditorium at Edgewood High School, 2415 Willoughby Beach Road. Army officials will explain the project and invite questions and opinions about the program.

Citizen comment probably won't be in short supply. Just as the incinerator issue has resurfaced, so has a county citizens group formed five years ago to oppose destruction of chemical agents at the proving ground.

Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment has been bird-dogging the Army on the incinerator proposal since plans were first unveiled.

The groupsays it opposes the use of what it believes is an unproven technology to destroy lethal materials adjacent to a population center of morethan 40,000, said Linda Koplovitz, president of Concerned Citizens.

"What's at issue here is the lives and well-being of 40,000 people," Koplovitz said.

The group's 11-member board of directors gathered in Joppatowne Tuesday evening to discuss the Army meeting and to organize lobbying efforts and other activities for the coming months.

Concerned Citizens has pressed the Army to consider transporting the APG stockpile to another site for disposal or to explore a "neutralization" alternative. That would involve chemical treatment of the agents to render them harmless.

"We're willing to discuss any alternatives," Koplovitz said.

Army officials have given assurances that a disposal program at APG won't be initiated until it can be provento be safe.

A disposal program at APG would be part of a nationwide disposal initiative ordered by the U.S. Congress. Under the legislation, the U.S. Department of Defense must destroy the nation's agingstockpile of chemical warfare agents by April 30, 1997.

There areeight U.S. military sites -- including APG -- at which chemical weapons are stored. Information about the amount of existing agent, as well as the amount stored at APG, is classified, said proving ground spokeswoman Louise Dyson.

But the agent located at APG makes up about 5 percent of the nation's total chemical weapons stockpile, she said.

In February 1988, the Army decided to pursue on-site disposal of the stockpiles, instead of transporting the agent for disposal at acentral site. Army officials cited safety concerns about transporting the material as well as the potential threat of terrorism.

Sincelast June, the Army has been burying chemical warfare agents in a pilot program incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, about720 miles southwest of Hawaii.

The material burned in the $340 million Johnston incinerator is part of a World War II-era stockpile from Germany.

If that program proves successful, the Army plans to build incinerators for on-site disposal at the other eight U.S. stockpile sites.

However, Concerned Citizens remains unconvinced that a fail-safe incinerator can be developed. The group contends that delays and technical difficulties have plagued the Johnston Atoll program.

"It's not working; it's not safe," said Mercedes Sanborsky, a Harford attorney and board member of Concerned Citizens.

The Johnstonincinerator opening was delayed for 18 months, and through last December, the facility operated according to schedule only 24 percent of the time, Army officials said.

In the coming weeks, the plant willbe shut down for overhaul of a conveyor-belt system used to transport non-lethal materials, said Marilyn Tischbin, APG spokeswoman.

"We haven't seen safety problems or environmental problems," Tischbin said Friday. "We've seen mechanical problems."

Army officials have said shutdowns have been precautionary and expressed confidence that problems experienced with the Johnston incinerator can be worked out.

Proving ground officials say that within two years, the APG stockpile could be destroyed in an on-site incinerator operating eight hours a day. Construction of the facility could begin sometime in 1993.

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