Specialist Tries To Cool Chemical-burning Controversy

August 11, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

It takes an incinerator heated to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit to burn mustard gas.

That's just about how hot things can get for Charlie Baronian, technical director of the Army's chemical weapons disposal program, headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

As deputy manager, he presides over plans to build a huge furnace to burn tons of mustard gas stored at APG.

FOR THE RECORD - Last week, a story about plans to incinerate chemical weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground incorrectly reported when facilities will open at the base. The facility that will open in October is a center to train people who will work at the incinerator.

Opponents worry that incinerator malfunctions at APG or any of seven other sites planned across the country would rain down an invisible cloud of poison in a heavily populated areas.

Baronian offers matter-of-fact assurances, relying on 39 years of experience building and destroying chemical weapons.

"We're not new at this business," he said Thursday, sitting at a conference table behind alarge ashtray full of cigarette butts. "In the early '70s, we built plants at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and disposed of 6 million poundsof mustard and 8 million pounds of nerve agent munitions and bulk chemicals all in a heavily populated area."

Baronian has seen every side of the chemical weapons program during his career. He entered the Army in 1952, after completing a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Rhode Island.

"They put me to work inthe now-infamous pilot plant at Edgewood," where the Army developed advanced mustard gas agent and nerve gas.

The plant was shut down after The Sun reported that APG violated federal standards on releaseof toxic materials.

But Baronian was long gone, having moved to the demilitarization program in 1970.

"I've kind of gone full swing," he said. "I was involved in the development of the systems. Now, I'm involved in the destruction of the systems."

Baronian cites theDenver operation as an example to calm area residents like Linda Koplovitz, president of Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, which was formed to oppose destruction of chemical agents at APG.

But Greenpeace and other national environmental organizations demandedlast month that the Army delay incineration until chemical or microbiological technology is developed to neutralize chemical weapons agents.

"The Army's only argument against alternative technology is the time element," Koplovitz says. "But the deadline has been moved back whenever the Army wanted it. We just want it moved for citizen safety."

Baronian says that opponents would run the risk of disaster while waiting for technology that might not ever arrive.

"I've flown over a million miles," he says. "Does that mean I can never die in an air crash?"

The Army gave Baronian an award last month hailing him as "the free world's expert of chemical demilitarization" whose "Herculean effort" ended opposition to Army plans to incinerate chemical weapons at Johnston Atoll beginning next March.

Baronian explained that the Germans would not tolerate keeping U.S. chemical weaponsforever and that the most likely place to dispose of them would be Johnston Atoll, the site of the Army's only operating incinerator.

"The program essentially sold itself," he said.

Baronian says common sense should prevail at APG.

Mustard gas agent is not explosiveand APG stores it only in its thick, slow-moving liquid form. No munitions would be disposed of at the APG incinerator.

APG's $336 million incinerator, scheduled to open in October, would include an airlock chamber to contain leaking from the one-ton containers of the chemical agent, two incineration chambers that will operate at more than2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to assure destruction of all mustard gas, achemical "quencher to cool the burned material and neutralize acids,an anti-pollution scrubber to collect solid residue in a drum for off-site disposal, and a condensation column to remove contaminated liquids before harmless gasses are expelled through a smokestack.

TheArmy has found that perpetually storing the weapons is the greatest danger, Baronian says. The Army warns that constant leaks from decades-old one-ton containers in a guarded, open field on APG could eventually contaminate ground water and the Bush River.

"Greenpeace totally opposes any transport," Baronian said. "I don't want to sound like a know-it-all. But we have the greatest risk to the public if we donothing."

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