Pander-Bears Fuel Mustard Scare

May 17, 1992

Aberdeen Proving Ground, tester of tanks and guns, has always been known as a place that produced a lot of noise, but it's nothing compared to the output at another federal property some 60 miles to the south: The U.S. Congress.

Some members of Maryland's congressional delegation have been tripping over themselves in a rush to prove to people on the upper Eastern Shore and Harford County that they care about the danger posed by the pending incineration of mustard gas stored at the Harford-based proving ground.

Several weeks ago, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, fighting for re-election on the shore against Rep. Tom McMillen, proposed delaying the disposal of lethal mustard agent at Aberdeen past the scheduled deadline of 1998. In recent days, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Mr. McMillen, running for his political life in a new district, played one-upmanship in calling for a delay to disposal. Ms. Mikulski called for more studies -- a procedure the U.S. Army already was following. Mr. McMillen, in turn, proposed a bill deferring the deadline for Aberdeen till completion of an arms reduction agreement for the entire planet, or the year 2010, whichever comes first. Perhaps Mr. McMillen figures that by then he'll be redistricted again, may represent Garrett County and won't have to worry about this matter.

The Maryland delegation's pander-bear exhibit wouldn't be so funny if Congress hadn't demanded in 1985 that the Army get rid of its lethal chemical stockpile at nine sites. Congress wanted disposal of those obsolete chemical weapons as a trade-off for allowing the Army to produce a new class of chemical weaponry. Since then, residents near some sites have been fearful and angry about the incineration prospect. Some early accidents at a test incinerator at Johnston Atoll, a speck in the Pacific where 300,000 chemical weapons are stored, hasn't aided arguments for incineration, either.

If any of the storage sites is in safe shape, it's Aberdeen's Edgewood arsenal. The mustard is stored in sealed steel cylinders within a secure, fenced area and guarded by soldiers round the clock. The mustard is not attached to projectiles, has been there for 40 years and poses a danger only if a plane crashes into it and an ensuing fire burns for at least 30 minutes. Below 58 degrees, the agent is frozen; above that, it's syrup.

Aberdeen is scheduled to start incineration last among the U.S. sites. The chemical can't stay there forever, though. The estimated cost of disposal has quadrupled to $8 billion since 1985.

Rep. Helen Bentley, admittedly a defender of APG, has played an admirable role on this issue. She's remained in the forefront for the past seven years and has urged careful study of alternatives, but has refused to use the controversy to shill for votes. As for her colleagues, Ms. Mikulski and Messrs. Gilchrest and McMillen, their demagoguery on this issue deserves the incineration option.

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