Aberdeen Tries to Cut the Mustard

ANDREW RATNER

June 13, 1992|By ANDREW RATNER

The stock of World War II mustard agent at Aberdeen ProvingGround is not marked by one of Maryland's black-eyed-Susan highway signs that direct visitors to interesting spots in the state, but the public-affairs people at Aberdeen took me to tour it last week and wouldn't mind taking thousands more if they could.

They want, in their words, to ''demystify mustard,'' no easy task. Germany developed the chemical weapon in World War I. Military historians say it got its name because it is colored yellow-brown and smells garlicky. It is no condiment, however. When heated from syrup form to a mist, it destroys lungs, burns flesh and evaporates 2,000 times slower than water, so it stays around.

Mustard has been stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood section for 40 years. Many proving-ground employees never knew it was there, much less the general public. The U.S. military is drawing back the veil of secrecy and razor wire, because it is destroying its chemical weaponry, some of it even more insidious and volatile than mustard. Greenpeace, the environmental group, estimates 25,000 tons of chemical weapons are stored at eight sites in the United States. The former Soviet Union has a stockpile estimated to be twice that -- and has said it's waiting for American ingenuity to take the lead on ridding the planet of these enduring souvenirs of 20th-century war.

Aberdeen, with roughly 1,500 tons of mustard agent, is said to be among the safest of the depositories, because the gas is stored without projectiles in 1,800 or so containers that resemble large propane tanks.

To visit the site, Aberdeen's public-affairs people put me in a 10-year-old beat-up Dodge, not because they wanted to prove the frugality of the new Army, but because they needed to use a vehicle without a catalytic converter, the emission equipment that's standard on later-model vehicles. They fear that the converters are subject to overheating and causing a fire, the worst thing that could happen at the mustard-storage yard.

At a gate a mile from the yard, a post officer inspects the car to ensure we're not smuggling anything in to enable us to get the mustard out, even though we number two Aberdeen officials, a state official and a reporter. Like something out of James Bond, the officer requires the driver to pop the hood, lest it be rigged to blow up. The spokesmen prefer that most details of security remain confidential, but it's clear they go to extremes to monitor and protect this piece of hell on earth.

It's all the more reason the military is incensed that it has been held up for scorn by politicians who realize that fighting chemical-weapons disposal is a ''no lose'' proposition, and by Greenpeace.

In 1985, Congress ordered the Pentagon to get rid of obsolete chemical weapons, originally by 1997. Now the Army may get from legislators the treatment it gives its own corps: Hurry up and wait. While the Army has been trying to comply with congressional orders, the House of Representatives just passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, that would delay destruction of the agents, particularly of the smaller stocks such as Aberdeen's, until an international accord on chemical-weapons disposal is signed, or the year 2010. The Senate may field the issue next month.

Greenpeace has helped jell community opposition in Maryland and in several other stockpile states with its intractable position against incineration. The group feels other disposal techniques, such as chemically neutralizing the agents, are viable and were ignored. The Army worries that those alternatives would produce even more diluted waste to dispose of.

The critics' most valid concern: What happens to the incinerators, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, after the program? The Army says it is required to dismantle them, but as this issue shows, laws were made to be amended. With the shrinking Defense Department looking for ways to contract out expertise and equipment, fears that the Army would get into the toxic-waste disposal business seem credible.

Overall, though, the Army has worked to accomplish a rational program as rapidly as possible. It admits to and is working out the bugs at its balky 2-year-old pilot incinerator at Johnston Island in the Pacific. A new $35 million simulation center at Aberdeen will train incinerator technicians.

No magic bullet exists to erase from the world a product so evil its creators lauded its ability to preserve buildings while consuming humans. While the critics deserve to be heard by the Army, they are engaged in a giant crap shoot: If an infinitesimal-risk accident should occur -- say a plane crashes at Aberdeen and sparks a fire that burns long enough to disperse the mustard -- where will Greenpeace and the politicians be found then?

Andrew Ratner writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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