Army lab's old chemicals raise questions Bomb team destroys out-of-date ethers at Fort Detrick.

March 12, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Questions have been raised about safety and environmental compliance at the nation's leading germ warfare defense laboratory after an Army bomb squad destroyed a batch of potentially explosive chemicals at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

A three-man team wearing protective gear removed 36 containers holding about seven gallons of ethers on Jan. 24 from an evacuated lab building at the Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The squad trucked the chemicals to another part of the post and destroyed them in a sealed underground pit, using 96 incendiary grenades detonated by remote control.

As a result of the incident, Maryland Department of the Environment officials plan to meet March 26 with Fort Detrick officials, said Michael Sullivan, a department spokesman.

The state was asked by a private environmental and safety consultant in Frederick to investigate what he alleges are violations of laws on hazardous waste.

Most of the material destroyed was diethyl ether, a common laboratory chemical used to anesthetize animals, among other things.

Ethers can become dangerously explosive if stored too long and exposed to air. The containers apparently had been kept 12 years past the 1979 expiration date on their labels, according to Norman M. Covert, the post's chief of public affairs.

The chemicals were discovered by chance on Jan. 23 in a fireproof storage cabinet next to a laboratory where researchers work with dangerous bacteria, germs and viruses, Mr. Covert said.

The institute helps develop vaccines and protective devices to counter biological warfare.

Only one of the containers, labeled "anhydrous ether," apparently had been opened, according to an Army report on the incident.

But the chemicals' manufacturers recommended that the containers be treated as "potential bombs," the report says. Mr. Covert said that post officials were warned by a state fire marshal that the chemicals could explode without warning and could blow out the walls of the laboratory building.

Based on that advice, post safety officials evacuated the laboratory and contacted an explosive ordnance detachment from Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania. The squad arrived the next morning and destroyed the chemicals.

The incident has prompted the laboratory staff to search for other potentially dangerous chemicals that may be in the laboratories, Mr. Covert said.

"We thought we had it all inventoried, and obviously we don't," Mr. Covert said. He added that the institute has a good safety record.

Alvin Bowles, the state's hazardous-waste administrator, said the discovery of outdated chemicals raises questions about what he called the base's "housekeeping." State officials want to be sure the base has a complete and current inventory of its potentially hazardous materials, he said. Furthermore, he wants the Army to consider other options for disposal of potentially dangerous materials.

Mr. Bowles said the disposal was "not necessarily a violation" since state and federal officials on the scene agreed it was an emergency. A deputy state fire marshal was there, and a member of the Department of Environment's emergency response program was consulted by telephone, the Army's report says.

Mr. Bowles was prompted to look into the incident by Michael E. Burns, a Frederick consultant who filed the complaint with the department two weeks ago. Mr. Burns said he advises private companies and institutions on handling hazardous wastes.

Mr. Burns contends that Army officials violated state and federal hazardous waste laws by keeping the ethers around too long and then by disposing of them improperly.

"It is not a minor mistake to store [ethers] for 12 years," Mr. Burns said. "That is against hazardous-waste regulations. It is also a gross safety violation."

Fort Detrick does not have state or federal permits to store or dispose of hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes generally may not be kept longer than 90 days without a permit and may be removed and disposed of only by a licensed contractor.

Fort Detrick officials did contact a licensed private hazardous-waste firm in Chicago, which for about $20,000 offered to fly in a team to handle the situation by the next day, Mr. Covert said.

He said cost was not the reason the Army called in its own demolition squad.

"There are some soft spots in the law, and our legal people seemed to think we didn't break any laws to do that," Mr. Covert said. "We are aware that you need a permit to do that sort of thing, but I guess it was one of those things that was obscured by the emergency."

Mr. Burns said he believes that Army officials overreacted once they did discover the ethers, and that there was no need to destroy the chemicals on site.

"These materials had been in this cabinet for 12 years," Mr. Burns said. "Why did they think they would suddenly blow up?"

Laboratory safety manuals warn of ethers' potential for exploding "with extreme violence" if they dry out or are subjected to unusual heat or shaking. But Dr. Ralph Pollack, a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville, noted that most common ethers are treated with substances that inhibit the formation of peroxides, the potentially explosive chemical created when ethers are exposed to air.

"I don't think it was a serious problem," said Dr. Pollack, who was asked how hazardous outdated ethers are.

"If we had an 8- or 10-year-old bottle of ether in the lab that was sealed, I'd use it," he said. "There are some other ethers I'd be worried about, but not diethyl ether or anhydrous ether."

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