State presses probe at Fort Detrick Chemicals destroyed with grenades

April 30, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Maryland will investigate possible hazardous waste violations at Fort Detrick in Frederick after state environmental officials concluded the Army improperly destroyed old chemicals discovered in its germ warfare defense laboratory.

An Army bomb squad from Pennsylvania on Jan. 24 used 96 incendiary grenades to destroy containers of ethers in a sealed pit dug on the post.

Richard W. Collins, hazardous and solid waste director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, accused the Army in a letter last week of overreacting to the discovery of the 32 containers in a storage cabinet at the Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The containers held about 7 gallons of ethers, mostly diethyl ether, a common laboratory chemi

cal used to anesthetize research animals, among other things.

State officials looking into the incident visited the base on March 26 and found deficiencies in Fort Detrick's training and procedures for responding to emergencies, storing and

disposing of hazardous wastes and assuring timely removal of dangerous chemicals, Mr. Collins wrote.

As a result, state inspectors will examine the fort's environmental compliance, he said.

Alvin Bowles, hazardous waste manager for the state, said that a team of two or three state inspectors would begin an audit within the next few weeks. The investigation should take two or three months, he said.

A Fort Detrick spokesman said that Army officials would cooperate with the audit, but denied that the Army had done anything wrong.

"We still feel we reacted in a proper manner to an emergency situation," said Norman M. Covert, the post's chief of public affairs.

Fort Detrick does not have a state permit to store or dispose of hazardous wastes, and the law requires such disposal by a licensed contractor. Army officials contend, however, that quick action was needed because they had been advised the chemicals were extremely unstable and could explode at any time.

Manufacturers of the ethers told Army safety officials that the containers were "potential bombs," Mr. Covert has said. He noted that the disposal was approved at the time by a state fire marshal and by a state environmental official responsible for handling chemical spills and leaks.

But Mr. Collins wrote that his staff has concluded the risk of explosion was "overstated" and led Army officials to make "a series of incorrect decisions."

Ethers do pose a threat of explosion if stored too long and exposed to air. The containers found at Fort Detrick apparently were kept 12 years past the 1979 expiration date on their labels, but only one container seemed to have been opened.

The chemicals were discovered by chance in a fireproof storage cabinet next to a sealed laboratory where researchers work with dangerous bacteria, germs and viruses. The institute helps develop vaccines and protective devices to counter biological warfare.

Mr. Collins said the Army improperly transported the ether containers over a public road, without a required manifest, and then improperly disposed of the residue from their incineration in the base's landfill.

"It appears that environmental managers are not up to date on current hazardous waste rules and regulations," Mr. Collins wrote.

But Mr. Covert, the fort's spokesman, said state officials were engaging in "Monday morning quarterbacking." He said that state environmental officials had approved the base's plan to destroy the ethers.

"Maybe we did overreact a little bit, we don't know," Mr. Covert said.

"We always try to err on the side of caution," he added. "So if we made a mistake, it was a good mistake and no one was hurt, nothing negative resulted from it."

The state's investigation was prompted by a complaint about the incident from Michael E. Burns of Frederick. Mr. Burns, who is a private environmental and safety consultant, asked the state to perform a full-scale audit of the fort's hazardous waste program.

Mr. Burns said he was pleased that the state had concluded that the ethers' disposal was improper.

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