Incineration Plan Concerns Kent Residents

April 05, 1992|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Staff writer

Across the Chesapeake Bay from Aberdeen Proving Ground, there is a rising wave of concern over the Army's plans to burn hundreds of tons of toxic chemical warfare agents on the military post in 1997.

"Our concern about what is going on is shared by a number of other organizations in this region, who want to know more about the issue," saidJane Hukill, a Kent County activist who helped organize a symposium on toxic incineration to be held at Washington College in Chestertownthis Saturday.

The symposium, sponsored by the college, aims to present a variety of views on the proposed chemical weapons incinerator at APG.

Local, state and federal government officials, the Army, environmental groups, public policy analysts and emergency planners will take part.

"The purpose of the symposium is to educate the public and not topromote a single stand," said Hukill.

Speakers will have equal time to present views. The public and politicians can ask questions; many expected to attend have already seen the Army's presentation of the issue, but this will include alternative views, Hukill noted.

The symposium begins at 9:30 a.m. in the Tawes Theatre of the Gibson Performing Arts Center at the college.

Hukill acknowledged that the meeting could help build ties between organizations opposed to incineration of the 40-year-old stockpiles of mustard agent at the Harford County base.

"We want to encourage them to write resolutions to their elected officials, telling them that they are against incineration," she said.

"We want a political solution. It's not the Army's decision. They are following the will of Congress."

Some governmentefforts to inform the public about possible emergency precautions incase of an accident at the APG chemical storage area stirred interest in the issue on the Eastern Shore last fall.

Hukill said a "60 Minutes" television program in January about the Army's massive program to burn chemical weapons agents at eight sites across the U.S. "came as a shock to many people and woke them up."

One result has beenformation of a network through a series of conference calls across the country among various citizens groups, including Kent County organizations, concerned about the incineration plans, Hukill said.

"It's not just environmental groups that are concerned," she added.

Various public meetings in Harford County on the incineration issue have raised some strong opposition to on-site burning of the chemical weapon stores. County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is among those opposed.

Congress mandated in 1985 that the military destroy the obsolete stockpiles of chemical weapons nationwide. In 1988, the Army selected on-site incineration at the eight storage areas as the safest and most effective solution.

The Army is studying whether plans to burn chemicals at the eight storage areas would harm the environment.

Meanwhile, test burns of the various types of chemical agents and their containers are under way in an incinerator at Johnston Atoll inthe South Pacific, where chemical warfare agents have been burned inthe past.

A four-month test of burning mustard agent stored in one-ton containers is to begin in late spring at Johnston. Of the chemicals being tested, only the mustard agent is stored at APG, in one-ton containers.

While construction of the incinerators at the eight continental United States locations has not started, the Army is beginning to train incineration specialists at a new APG facility, managed by the Chemical Demilitarization Office.

Incineration of the estimated 1,500 tons of mustard agent at APG would not occur before 1997, office administrators say. Construction of the $220 million incinerator is scheduled for late 1994.

The mustard agent -- often erroneously called mustard gas even though it is a thick syrup or solid at normal temperatures -- is stored at APG in 80-inch-long, sausage-likesteel tubes, called ton containers, at an outdoor area near the BushRiver.

The three-acre yard is guarded by a double, pressure-sensitive fence, topped by razor-sharp, coiled barbed wire, and patrolled regularly by guards who are authorized to use "deadly force" on intruders, warning signs note.

The hundreds of white-painted tubes are surveyed by TV cameras and monitored by computer-linked underground probes for any leaks onto the crushed-rock bed where they sit.

The tubes are cabled together in stacks of 15. Each day, crews in gas masks and protective clothing inspect each tube and its double-valve stems.

The amount of mustard agent at APG is officially classified, although the Army says the agent makes up 5 percent of its total chemical warfare stockpile.

James M. Allingham, spokesman for the Army's Chemical Research, Development and Engineering Center, says the strict security and monitoring will prevent nearly any type of accidental release of the chemicals.

But the government must still plan forwhat he calls "the most incredible event" -- a large jetliner crashing directly into the storage yard and burning unchecked for 30 minutes, creating enough concentrated heat to vaporize the toxic chemical and send it airborne.

Some opponents of the incineration project, however, argue that the tight security makes it practical to leave thecontainers there until a better means of disposal can be developed.

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