CHESTERTOWN — *TC CHESTERTOWN -- Backed by a cheering Kent County audience, two rival congressmen pledged yesterday to halt plans to burn obsolete toxic chemical weapons at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, just four miles across the Chesapeake Bay.
"All you need is 218 members of Congress to say you have a moratorium and you have a moratorium," Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st-Md., said at a symposium on chemical incineration sponsored by Washington College.
"Science must take precedence over politics," said Mr. Gilchrest, who last week introduced a bill to halt burning of 40-year-old mustard agent at the Harford County military base.
"I strongly oppose this incinerator," agreed Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th-Md., who is running against Mr. Gilchrest for the 1st District seat this fall. "I oppose all incinerators in this country" because of potential risks to human health, he said.
Although incineration of the estimated 1,500 tons of obsolete mustard agent has been a controversial topic in Harford County since the Army endorsed that course in 1988, it has only recently stirred up emotions in Kent County. Residents fear that an accident would release plumes of the blistering chemical.
On Tuesday, the Kent County commissioners voted their opposition to the Aberdeen incinerator, citing concerns for public safety in the event of an accident.
"We will work strictly on a county level, only on a county level, to prepare emergency plans," Commissioner Larry Beck said. The county will not be compromised by accepting federal funds for such planning, he said.
The crowd of 400 people in the Tawes Theatre was overwhelmingly opposed to plans for incineration, which would not occur until 1998 at the earliest.
"Are you taking into account the risk of cancer?" asked Carla Massoni of the Kent County Parent-Teacher Association, who noted the high incidence of cancer in Maryland.
"People make mistakes, and people will be operating this system," said George Henderson, a local physician. "The effects of an accident would be very serious."
While moderator J. David Newell insisted that the meeting was for learning, not a political rally, the audience was otherwise disposed.
Organizers of the symposium say they hope to mobilize a public outcry or persuade Congress to block the incineration project until alternative disposal methods can be studied.
"The Army doesn't seem to listen," said Mary Walkup, president of Kent Conservation Inc., as she helped to collect signatures on a petition. In the weeklong drive, nearly 3,000 people have signed petitions opposing chemical burning, she said.
Their fears were fueled by the accounts of Kentucky activists who have been fighting for eight years a similar plan to burn stockpiled chemicals at Lexington-Blue Grass Army Depot. Stored nerve and mustard agents are tentatively scheduled to be burned in massive incinerators at eight Army bases around the country.
"The public has been left outside the decision process," said Craig Williams, director of Kentucky Environmental Foundation. "Incineration was chosen as the solution, and the studies have been chosen to fit the solution."
Charles Baronian, the Army's technical director for chemical demilitarization, insisted that public input is weighed in choosing disposal solutions. "I'm not here to convince anybody. I'm here to impart information," he said.
While the Army chose incineration as the best solution in 1988, a final decision has yet to be made. The National Academy of Sciences is looking at other possible disposal methods, with a report due in February, he said.
Pat Costner, research director for Greenpeace, said the environmental group produced a report listing 27 other ways in which the deadly war chemicals could be destroyed.
She declined to pick the few best solutions from that list, which ranged from chemical neutralization to ultraviolet treatment.
But well-documented problems at the nation's hazardous waste incinerators and at the Army's test incinerator in the Pacific Ocean's Johnston Atoll signal that "incineration is inappropriate for disposal."
Even under the best conditions, about three pounds of mustard agent would be released to the atmosphere because of incomplete combustion, Ms. Costner said. In addition, toxic contaminants such as dioxin would escape into the air after burning, she said.
The escalating cost of the nationwide incineration proposal may be the deciding factor to kill the idea, said Charles Bracelin Flood, another Kentucky activist. In just four years, the price tag has jumped from $3 billion to nearly $8 billion, he noted.