Harford protests Army plan Residents oppose burning nerve gas

February 13, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

EDGEWOOD — A headline and map accompanying an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly described material the U.S. Army proposes to burn at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The material is mustard agent, a liquid that blisters the skin and can be lethal.

The Sun regrets the error.

EDGEWOOD -- Nearly 500 angry Harford County residents packed the Edgewood High School auditorium last night to complain about the U.S. Army's plans to burn tons of deadly mustard agent in an incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Anyone should know, you don't do something like this in the middle of a heavily populated area," groused Christopher Boardman of Joppatowne.


Lois Roberts, who lives about a mile from the gate of the proving ground, said, "I've lived here 25 years, my children are here, my grandchild is here, and I don't want to carry a gas mask or nerve-gas antidotes."

The Army sponsored the meeting to explain plans for the incinerator and to ask nearby residents what it should include in an environmental impact statement it must submit to Congress before starting operations. Congress is to review the statement and instruct the Army on how to proceed.

Army officials said they may review their plans in light of the citizens' comments.

Mostly, Army officials heard complaints from people who feared the effects of an accident on the heavily populated peninsula and wanted the Army to ship the mustard agent elsewhere to be destroyed.

"They ought to barge it to Johnston Atoll," a Pacific island where the Army has built its prototype incinerator, said James Robinson, president of the Edgewood Recreation Council. "They could do that at a third of the cost."

The Aberdeen project is expected to cost $220 million.

But Charles Baronian, the Army's technical director of programs to destroy the chemical weapons, said it may not be so easy.

Pacific island nations have objected vehemently to munitions that were shipped to Johnston Atoll last fall, he said. And President Bush promised those countries he would ship no more such munitions there, he added. He said citizens have underestimated the cost of transporting the weapons, but he could not say how much it would cost.

Other residents complained of emissions from existing incinerators and worried that the Army would use the proposed new incinerator to burn other munitions discovered on the site.

"What if the Army decides to keep this incinerator going after this stockpile is destroyed?" asked Linda Koplovitz, president of Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, which opposes the incinerator.

"Are nerve agents next? The only question we'll have 25 years down the road will be about our high cancer rate," she said.

The proposed incinerator is part of a $3.4 billion program to destroy the country's stockpile of old chemical weapons at eight Army installations around the nation.

About 5 percent of the nation's supply of mustard agent is stored in several thousand 1-ton bulk containers in a guarded, open field near the Bush River on the Army post.

Congress ordered the destruction of the old chemical weapons in 1985 after approving production of a newer generation of such weapons. The deadline, originally 1994, has been delayed until 1998 to allow for more safety studies.

Residents' fears about continued use of the incinerator increased last summer when a congressional agency recommended that it also be used to decontaminate parts of an old building once used to test nerve gas.

But the Army did not make that decision, countered Louise Dyson, a spokeswoman for the facility. "The decision was made by Congress, and Congress came back and ordered the independent study," she said.

"If Congress says the facility is not to be destroyed, it will be Congress that makes that decision, not Gen. [Walter] Busbee," she said, referring to the Army's program manager for destroying chemical weapons.

The only person who spoke in favor of the incinerator was Deborah Smith, an original member of Concerned Citizens who complained that residents' children would in greater danger if the mustard agent remains on the post.

"It must be destroyed now," she said.

The environmental analysis is to be completed by February 1993. If the incinerator is approved, construction would begin in June of that year and operations would start in September of 1997, Ms. Dyson said.

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