Tons of deadly chemicals still litter desert Baltimore firm's drums are found in rubble at Iraqi weapons plant.

November 11, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

Bill Dee, an Aberdeen Proving Ground chemical engineer, was in Iraq searching through the rubble of a bombed-out chemical plant. He was representing the United Nations in its effort to survey and eventually destroy the toxic remains of Iraq's chemical-weapons capability.

Among hundreds of drums strewn about the desert northwest of Baghdad were dozens of containers of thiodiglycol from Alcolac International.

The Baltimore chemical company pleaded guilty in 1989 to violating U.S. export-control laws.

The U.S. Customs Service accused Alcolac of providing tons of thiodiglycol to Iraq in 1987 and 1988.

Thiodiglycol, legitimately used in the manufacture of textiles, lubricants and cosmetics, can be combined with hydrochloric acid to form a lethal poison.

In a statement in 1989, Alcolac said it deeply regretted "its unintentional role in efforts to misuse" the thiodiglycol for chemical warfare.

In the 1980s, Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and in its war with Iran.

Dee's identification of the Alcolac containers, during a week-long U.N. inspection tour in August, was proof that Alcolac-produced thiodiglycol became part of Iraq's ambitious program to manufacture war chemicals.

"What he has uncovered is the first evidence that the stuff actually went [to Iraq]," said Gary Bernstein, a Baltimore lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Alcolac case.

Through shipping records, he said, authorities had traced the Alcolac thiodiglycol as far as Aqaba, a port city in Jordan through which goods have long reached Iraq.

"Drums of chemicals were found from virtually every country," said Dee.

He declined to name other suppliers listed on labels found on the containers stored at the Al Fallujah complex and the Al Muthanna complex, the Iraqis' main chemical weapons production facility. His team also inspected bombs filled with mustard agent stored at Al Taqqadum Air Base near Lake Habbaniyah west of Baghdad.

In much the same way that the oil-well fires set by Iraqi troops during the Persian Gulf War caused an environmental disaster in Kuwait, the scores of drums and munitions leaking deadly mustard and nerve agents pose an urgent threat to portions of Iraq's desert and those who work or travel there.

"They do need a quick fix," said Dee, contending the toxic rubble should be disposed of within months, not years.

The cleanup is being supervised by a U.N. special commission, with help from chemical experts at the proving ground and their counterparts around the world. A U.N. resolution calls for Iraq to do away with all its weapons of mass destruction.

Dee, as deputy chief of the U.N. inspection team, supervised the work of the 11-nation, 22-member group. He said last week that he may be called to return to Iraq soon for more inspections. A 48-member follow-up U.N. inspection team was to be in Iraq through yesterday conducting an extensive inventory of the Iraqi chemical stockpile.

Dee, 53, is one of only a handful of Americans who have participated in the U.N. inspections. He is a special assistant to the commander of the Army's Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center, where he has worked since he was 20.

In the course of his work at the proving ground, Dee became one of three civilian executives convicted in 1989 of mishandling hazardous waste. The three were fined, put on probation and ordered to perform community service. The trial, which received national attention, represented the first time individual federal employees were criminally prosecuted for routinely violating environmental laws.

Throughout much of his career, Dee led the research effort into development of the latest class of U.S. chemical weapons, called binary munitions. The binary program recently was halted as a result of a U.S.-Soviet treaty to stop the superpowers' chemical arms race.

Dee said allied bombers caused forboding chemical contamination at the Iraqi plants.

"There were clearly [chemicals] released" during the bombing, he said. He added that he did not ask his Iraqi escorts whether plant workers were killed during the attacks, either by the explosions or by chemical poisoning.

Mustard agent blisters the skin and eyes and burns the #i respiratory system. Nerve agents depress brain functions and constrict muscles, leading to asphyxiation.

Dee said the Iraqis were poor managers of chemical munitions, storing some of them in open areas exposed to intense heat. Many of the munitions are unmarked, so inspectors don't know what chemicals they contain.

"The challenge of getting rid of this stuff is going to be immense," said Brad Roberts, a chemical weapons expert and research fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This is an opportunity to test alternative destruction technologies," Roberts added. U.N. officials say a combination of incineration, chemical neutralization and even entombment would be used in cleaning up the Iraqi stockpile.

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