Army to review plans for burning chemical agents Congress orders look at alternatives to incineration

October 11, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- In a victory for critics of the Army's plan to incinerate its old chemical agents here and elsewhere, Congress has told the service it must take a second look at possibly safer and cheaper ways of destroying the lethal material.

What to do with the stockpiles at the proving ground in Harford County and at seven other U.S. sites has been an evolving question since the mid-1980s, when Congress first told the Army to dispose of the mustard and nerve agents.

It is a highly charged issue here, where residents worry about health and safety, and a global diplomatic issue, as negotiators around the world prepare to sign an accord early next year calling for the destruction of all chemical weapons.

"I think this a great victory for the local groups" fighting incineration, Sebia Hawkins of the international environmental group Greenpeace said last week of the congressional action.

"This is what we have been asking for," said Mary Roe Walkup, president of Kent Conservation Inc., a watchdog group based in Kent County, some three miles across the Chesapeake Bay from the proving ground.

Mrs. Walkup, a former Kent County commissioner, and other critics of incineration say the Army has not studied alternative destruction methods comprehensively since the mid-1980s.

The proving ground manages about 5 percent of the total Army stockpile -- an estimated 1,500 tons of lethal mustard agent stored on the shores of the Bush River. The installation also houses the headquarters for the disposal program, called the Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency.

In the 1993 defense-spending bill signed into law by President Bush last week, Congress told the Army to change the focus of its disposal program. Its estimated cost has quadrupled to nearly $8 billion, and citizen's groups around the storage sites have complained that the Army has not listened to their concerns.

The bill, which Army managers of the program began deciphering late last week:

* Dictates a process for evaluating destruction methods other than incineration, which has always been the Army's preferred method. The Army must look at safety, environmental concerns and cost-effectiveness. Alternatives include neutralization of the stockpiles through chemical or biological processes.

* Extends the deadline for destruction of the weapons and agents at all U.S. storage sites to Dec. 31, 2004, from 1999. That corresponds with a deadline for destruction of chemical weapons expected to be contained in the international accord ++ that may be signed in January.

* Calls for the appointment of citizen advisory commissions around some or all of the storage sites. Congress wants the Army to consider the citizens' concerns before it decides how to dispose of the chemicals.

* Requires the Army to ensure the safety of continued storage of the material, now that the deadline for destruction has been extended five years.

The chemical disposal program "is a major problem economically," said an aide to U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen of Maryland, because the cost continues to increase. Mr. McMillen and others in Congress hope a cheaper way to dispose of the chemicals will be found.

Mr. McMillen and his Republican opponent for the 1st District seat, Wayne T. Gilchrest, both seized on the chemical weapons issue during the past year, as Kent County residents became increasingly concerned about hazardous emissions from incineration.

Many Harford residents and officials, including County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, also are fighting incineration.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and representatives of Kentucky and Alabama also worked on the congressional measure.

Mustard agent, the only chemical stored at the proving ground, is a syrupy liquid that freezes when the temperature is under 58 degrees. It blisters the skin and eyes and burns the respiratory system. In lower doses it can cause chronic injuries; in high doses, it is fatal.

Unlike newer warfare chemicals, mustard can linger in an area for months without breaking down chemically.

In summing up the consequences of a major accident involving the stockpile, such as a plane crashing into it, a 1988 Army report said the "social disruption to the community would be extensive and enduring." Many people would need to be relocated during a cleanup operation, the report said.

Emergency responses could involve residents in a 5- or 6-mile radius around such an accident.

The Army maintains that incineration is safer than continued storage. It says that any accidents at an incinerator could be easily contained, because only small amounts of mustard agent would be burned at a given time.

According to the current Army schedule, an incinerator, costing an estimated $438 million to build and operate, would be constructed at the proving ground starting in 1995. "Toxic operations," or the burning of mustard agent, are scheduled to begin in September 1998 and last under two years.

The original federal law requiring the destruction of the weapons and agents says incinerators at all eight sites should be dismantled once the material is burned.

"We have a lot of homework to do in order to assess the total impact" of the congressional action, said Brig. Gen. Walt Busbee, head of the Army Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency. "It has been a moving target all summer," he said.

Earlier this year, the Army asked the National Academy of Sciences to study alternatives to incineration.

The Army has been testing incineration on Johnston Atoll, a deserted island 750 miles southwest of Hawaii. It has completed 70 percent of the construction of an incinerator at Tooele Army Depot in Utah, another of the eight mainland stockpile sites.

Officials in Congress say they recognize that the Army may use a combination of incineration and other destruction technologies, depending on the types of agents and weapons stored at each site and the size of the population around them.

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