Army Must Come Clean On Chemical Incineration Plan


February 17, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Opponents of the Army's proposal to incinerate chemical weapons agents stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground raised eyebrows and worries again last week.

And rightly so.

The Army seems hell-bent on sticking to its plan to incinerate on-site its supply of liquid mustard agent stored in several thousand 1-ton containers on the base. Much of the agent -- which even in partsper million is highly toxic to humans -- is old. Some of it is as much as 40 years old.

Because the agent is corrosive, the containers in which some of it is stored are rusting and deteriorating. The Army is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

An accidental release of the mustard could have terrible consequences.

That's why Congress has given the Army a mandate to destroy, by 1997, the aging chemical weapons stockpile it has stored at eight bases across the nation. At Aberdeen the Army says only the liquid mustard agent is stored.

At a packed hearing Tuesday night at Edgewood High School, critics of the on-site incineration plan urged the Army to hold off until further data can be collected at the Army's test incinerator in the Pacific, Johnston Atoll.

Though some of the public comment on the issue has been unnecessarily vitriolic, the Army would be wise to listen and heed the public's calls for looking into new technologies to destroy the agent.

John Gaughan, a Fallston resident and chemical engineer, is among those who question the on-site incineration plan. He cites an article published last year in Chemical and Engineering News, a highly respected international trade publication, which called into question the operation of the test incinerator on Johnston Atoll.

Gaughan is among those who believe that if the Army plans toincinerate the deadly mustard agent on-site, the Army should go out of its way to find the very best technology available for ensuring the incineration process can't have an accidental release.

Remember, the reason generals like and hate chemical agents is that they are invisible and can drift over a wide area, raining destruction.

Theincineration process is a technology decided upon at least five years ago. Today, some argue, there are other technologies that might be more safe, such as a catalytic method which some chemical refineries use.

There's no question that as a society, we are all in part responsible for the production of these agents. They can be argued a necessary evil in a sometimes dangerous world.

But there's no sense playing the gambler with them near our own homes and children.

Gaughan is right when he says opponents of the plan need to cool their emotions when dealing with the Army on the issue, and the Army needs to decode the information it is trying to present. Too much of it is Greek to the public, and that has bred distrust.

Critics of the Armyplan to incinerate the aging stock of chemical agents are skeptical in part because the Army seems to have gone about its decision of where to destroy the stockpile backward.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann noted at the public hearing that the environmental impact statement for Aberdeen Proving Ground will be done after

-- not before -- the Army has made up its mind whether to destroy the stockpile on-site or ship it elsewhere.

She makes a good point.

But the fact is, the Army and Department of Defense clearly are forging ahead withthe plan to incinerate the containers of liquid mustard agent on thebase.

What area residents should concern themselves with now is getting top elected officials to request that an independent outside scientific authority be appointed to review the incineration technology the Army plans to use, to examine available data on the test burns done and to seek out possible alternatives. One such alternative includes freezing the mustard solid so it could be shipped to an incineration site not so close to a large population center.

Aberdeen is no longer located in a rural hideaway of the upper Chesapeake, Army officials should keep in mind.

The scientific group should be asked torender their opinions in plain language the common man can understand.

This would remove some of the emotionalism from the debate and provide answers for questions the Army seems unwilling to consider.

Some Harford residents who oppose on-site incineration have suggested that the Army look into neutralizing the chemical agents with otherchemicals.

The Department of Defense did study that method of destroying old chemical weapons agents in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats Arsenal near Denver. They found that the chemical neutralization method leaves a very small amount of hazardous waste residue. That could pose a disposal problem, but the issue may need to be revisited with a new study.

In the meantime, residents and elected officials should be seeking written agreements with the Army that will protect public safety and allow for public scrutiny.

Among the agreements needed:

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