Limited burning urged at Aberdeen Study says to destroy only mustard agent

February 13, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

A study ordered by Congress has concluded that it would not be feasible to use a chemical weapons incinerator planned for Aberdeen Proving Ground to burn other military waste, Army and congressional sources say.

The preliminary finding of the Mitre Corp., an affiliate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is expected to be presented to Congress in several weeks.

The finding was comforting to critics of the incinerator plan who attended a public meeting last night at Edgewood High School. The opponents fear that the incinerator, which would burn a stock of old mustard agent, also would be used to destroy all sorts of military chemicals and explosives.

Still, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who opposes the incineration plan, said, "The question continues to be if they are building a $255 million plant, are they going to dismantle it once the mustard agent is burned?"

Congress has ordered the Army to destroy its stocks of old mustard and nerve agents stored at Aberdeen and seven other sites around the country. Federal law now says the incinerators shall be torn down after use but some in Congress question the economy of that.

Also, the Mitre finding does not answer the basic question of whether the incinerators should be built in the first place or whether the Army should build one in the heavily populated Edgewood area.

Linda Koplovitz, a Bel Air resident, heads Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, a group opposing the incineration plan. She said the Army has been plagued by technical problems at a test incinerator at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. She claimed that the Army had been purposely vague about problems there, but Army officials counter that there have been no environmental risks.

Lois Roberts, who said a relative became ill for years after being exposed to mustard agent during World War I, said she did not want the Aberdeen incinerator to force her to leave her home of 25 years or to "carry gas masks."

Roberts was among the more than 300 people who attended last night's meeting, at which the Army explained how it would conduct an 18-month environmental study of the incinerator project. The plant, which would not begin its yearlong operation until 1996, would burn only mustard agent, a compound that blisters the skin, damages the respiratory tract and can be fatal in heavy doses.

Many Harford residents opposing the incinerator want the Army to consider shipping the mustard agent to Johnston Atoll or another site. But the Hawaii congressional delegation last year secured a prohibition against shipment of any mainland stocks to Johnston Atoll.

As Rehrmann observed when she learned of the Mitre finding, the chemical weapons disposal program is one that is influenced on a number of political fronts. Things can change rapidly in Congress and elsewhere, Rehrmann said.

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