Army demolition of chemicals is being investigated by state

March 13, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Questions have been raised about safety and possible violations of environmental laws 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 7 gallons of ethers Jan. 24 from an evacuated lab building at the Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the nation's leading germ warfare defense laboratory.

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.

State Department of the Environment officials plan to meet March 26 with Fort Detrick officials to discuss the incident, 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 that was 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 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 develops 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.

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 that they could blow out the walls of the building.

Based on that advice, post safety officials evacuated the laboratory later the same day 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 conduct a thorough search for any 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.

Alvin Bowles, the state's hazardous-waste administrator, said the discovery of outdated chemicals raises questions about what he called the base's "housekeeping."

The state wants to be sure the base has a complete and current inventory of its potentially hazardous materials, he said. He also wants the Army to consider other disposal options.

Mr. Bowles said the disposal was "not necessarily a violation" since state and federal officials agreed it was an emergency. A deputy state fire marshal was there, and a member of the Department of the 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 said he advises private companies and institutions on handling hazardous wastes.

Fort Detrick does not have state or federal permits to store or dispose of hazardous wastes.

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