Debate On Chemical Weapons Disposal Moves To Tv

September 15, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

The debate over how to dispose of chemical weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground and other Army bases moved to the air waves this month on Harford cable television public access Channel 15.

"Scrapping Chemical Weapons," was produced and paid for by the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank formed by military retirees that isfrequently critical of the Pentagon.

The half-hour documentary reviews the familiar problems of reconciling the conflicts between arms control and protection of the environment.

The narrator concludes, "If all sides had their way, chemical weapons would not be stored anywhere, moved anywhere or destroyed anywhere by any method. Obviously, something has to give."

The show will air Tuesday and Sept. 24 at 5:50 p.m., and Sept. 26 at 4 p.m.

Opponents of on-site destruction of the stored weapons argue in the documentary that the Army should continue storing them until safer destruction methods are developed.

Army disposal chief Gen. WalterBusbee responds in the show that it makes no sense to risk a catastrophic accident waiting for perfect technology when the army has already developed a safe incineration method.

Linda Koplovitz, president of the Edgewood-based Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, said the show should help tell more residents why her group formed to oppose burning mustard gas agent at APG.

In an evaluation Busbee did for CDI, he said the program was "quite good," given the difficult dialogue and the Not-In-My-Backyard ("NIMBY") syndrome.

But hesaid Thursday that the producers should have included more third-party rejoinders to incinerator opponents. As the only government official quoted on the show, he wrote that viewers could get the impressionof "the army expert vs. the world (public, Greenpeace, think-tank experts)."

The program first ran in March on America's Defense Monitor, a weekly series produced by CDI and carried by some public broadcasting stations.

The show opens with a Persian Gulf War scene of people pulling gas masks over their faces -- a nightmare that visits some Harford residents worried about an incinerator accident raining deadly mustard gas on their heads.

The narrator intones, "As it turned out, the expected Iraqi poison gas attack never occurred."

When the camera cuts to shots of citizens in Richmond, Ky., and the Soviet Union, he continues that the relief was only partial for some "people who live near places where for years the world's leading militarypowers have stashed their own huge deadly and deteriorating stockpiles of chemical weapons."

Busbee explains that leakage from 30- to-40-year-old rockets makes them top priority for destruction under thetreaty concluded with the Soviet Union.

Concerned with the big picture, the program does not mention that APG stores no live chemical munitions. Nor does it mention reports of leakage from 1-ton bulk storage tanks in the proving ground's Edgewood area.

The narrator follows the debate from the army decision in 1986 that the risks are toogreat to ship chemical weapons from APG and seven other sites in thecontinental United States to an incinerator in the South Pacific's Johnston Atoll.

That massive burner has destroyed chemical and nerve gas previously stored in Germany without mishap since a test periodbegan in July 1990.

But Sebia Hawkins, speaking for the environmental group, Greenpeace, warns that incomplete combustion pumps out chemical agent particles that can concentrate on surface water, poisoning the ecosystem below.

The program does not report the army's claim that pollution scrubbers at Johnston Atoll -- similar to those planned for APG -- produce incinerator exhaust that Busbee says far exceeds all federal pollution emission standards.

Koplovitz, who was interviewed with brief shots of her children in her Bel Air living room, says she worries about the cumulative effects of low-level cancer-causing chemical particles.

"I know people that will swear up and down, 'I've smoked five packs of cigarettes a day, you know, for 60 years, and I'm healthy,' " she says.

"The problem is there are a lot of people out there who do have a fine immune system and don't worry about anything. They don't worry about chemicals.

"But, then again, there are a lot of mothers out there who've had sick children -- women, maybe, who have lived next to Love Canal."

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