Is it more dangerous to incinerate mustard agent or to store it for up to 10 more years waiting for a safer technology to be developed?
And when there are so many opinions about what to do with the 1,500 tons of the poisonous blistering agent stored at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, how can you make a decision?
The Committee for National Security, a non-profit Washington-based agency seeking a ban on chemical weapons, wants Harford residents to have access to all the facts on the mustard agent disposal issue.
So the agency, with the help of a $10,000 Ford Foundation grant, is sponsoring the third in a series of public discussions about chemical weapons. This one begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the auditorium at Edgewood High School.
"We're just trying to clarify what the real issues and questions are that people need to be concerned about," said Theo Brown, who will lead the discussion. Mr. Brown is executive director of Project Victory, a California-based educational organization that offers conflict resolution and conducts dialogues on controversial public issues.
"But something's going to be done with these chemicals, and if it's done badly it's going to affect everyone," Mr. Brown said. "We take no position. We're not pushing alternatives, we're not pushing incineration. We just want to help people work together more effectively."
Mr. Brown said the topic of burning mustard agent is a sensitive one, often generating "noise, emotion and protest, all of which have a place, but we need to focus on the real questions, not just rhetoric."
Because the House of Representatives recently put the incineration plan on hold, the discussion tomorrow will focus on alternative methods of disposing of mustard agent, Mr. Brown said.
The House bill would freeze the money the Army needs to build incinerators at Aberdeen, Lexington, Ky., and Newport, Ind. The bill also requires the Army to study other ways of disposing of the chemicals, as well as to further investigate health effects and public safety concerns.
The bill would have to be passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush before it becomes law.
With congressional approval, construction on mustard agent incinerators could begin by January 1995. Incineration could be stopped, however, if the bill is passed or environmental impact studies present new information that would prohibit the Army from proceeding.
"There's been an increasing amount of energy being expended to find alternatives to incineration. There are some people who want almost anything other than burning mustard agent," said Mr. Brown. "Greenpeace, for example, has suggested biological, chemical, photo-chemical, electro-chemical processes and neutralization of the agent as alternatives."
But Mr. Brown said opponents of Greenpeace's suggestions argue that some of those alternative processes have not yet been fully developed, and it could be more dangerous to continue storing the mustard agent because of the chance of leakage or accidents.
The Committee for National Security has invited Charles Baronian, director of the Army's Chemical Demilitarization Program, and Sebia Hawkins, who helped prepare the Greenpeace report on alternative methods of disposal, to share proposed alternatives to incineration. Each will have the
opportunity to challenge the other's position.
Lauren Gordon, president of the Harford County League of Women Voters, said she believes the public information sessions CNS is sponsoring are important.
"I didn't know how serious it was until I started listening at these meetings," said Ms. Gordon. "It seems I've been keeping my head in the sand. This was a wake-up call for me. I haven't made up my mind about the issue, but I do know you can't just say transport it somewhere else, because then you're just dumping it in someone else's backyard, and that's irresponsible."
Thomas M. Trafton, a teacher at Havre de Grace High, said he didn't think the new information would change anyone's opinion.
"It seemed like there were more people at the [last] meeting who were against incineration than for it," said Mr. Trafton. "But I think it's helpful, because at least it keeps the issue alive, and if you don't know anything about the issue it's a good way to get some education."