Harford residents press proving ground for data Officials concerned about incinerator

January 18, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Harford County officials are pressing Aberdeen Proving Ground to provide more information about an incinerator used to "detoxify" equipment contaminated with chemical warfare agents, claiming that the facility lacks proper environmental safeguards.

The officials, including Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, asked Robert Perciasepe, the state environment secretary, last week to take a closer look at the 10-year-old incinerator.

The plant is used for decontaminating roughly 12,000 pounds of equipment each week, the Army said. The equipment -- ductwork, filters and the like, but no chemicals -- is from past or continuing chemical warfare research.

"Many of us didn't even know this thing existed," Mrs. Pierno said.

She and other officials question whether the state standards are adequate for a plant that burns equipment contaminated with deadly mustard agent and nerve agents.

In recent years -- especially since three top proving ground executives were found guilty of federal environmental crimes in 1989 -- the Army has worked to inform the public and government agencies about waste disposal and other environmental issues.

But to Mrs. Pierno and others, the incinerator issue indicates communication between the the proving ground and the county could be better.

"There are still things going on over there that they would prefer not be publicized," Mrs. Pierno said.

The Army reports that it has nothing to hide.

"We are meeting all the regulations and standards set by the state," said Kathy DeWeese, a spokesman for the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Agency, which operates the incinerator in the proving ground's Edgewood area.

The state-issued permit for the facility was last updated in 1985, and the Army has applied to the Maryland Department of the Environment for a new permit. There is no schedule for updating such permits, but state government is requiring the Army to update now as part of renewing many hazardous-waste permits on the Proving Ground.

The incinerator issue arose last week during a meeting of the Harford County Environmental Workgroup, a panel of local and state government officials and citizens set up recently to improve communication on waste disposal and other issues. The incinerator also has come up during discussions of an update to the county's solid waste management plan, expected to be approved in the spring.

The plan lists all waste-disposal facilities in the county. Most facilities, such as municipal landfills or private rubble landfills, must conform to zoning and other local ordinances to be added to the plan -- and to receive state permits.

The proving ground's incinerator is not required to conform with local ordinances or other conditions set by the county because it is considered a hazardous waste facility regulated solely by the state.

Claims of a lack of proper environmental safeguards "make the incinerator clearly inconsistent" with the county waste plan, states an amendment to the plan proposed by Mrs. Pierno.

John Goheen, a spokesman for the state environment department, said the incinerator is used for "redundant" treatment of contaminated equipment. Before items are placed in the incinerator, they are washed with a bleach solution that removes most of the chemical agents, he said.

Small quantities of mustard agent can blister the skin and cause respiratory problems. In larger quantities, such as those used in warfare, it can be deadly. Nerve agents can be deadly in small quantities if inhaled or if they touch touch the skin.

But Mr. Goheen said state inspections have revealed no potential health risks, adding: "We are certainly satisfied that the material that goes into the incinerator has very little, if any, chemical agent on it."

Environment department inspectors visit the incinerator more than once a year but on no set schedule, with the last visit having been made in November, Mr. Goheen said.

County officials, including Jefferson L. Blomquist, deputy county attorney, also said the air emissions and ash generated by the plant are not tested for the presence of warfare agents.

Recently, the county stopped allowing the Army to bury the majority of the ash from the incinerator at the county landfill in northern Harford -- a practice Mrs. Pierno said continued for possibly two years. The county cited the lack of testing for chemical agents.

The ash is tested for heavy metals, Ms. DeWeese said, but the state does not require further testing.

Ms. DeWeese said the ash shown to be free of toxic metals is considered "nonhazardous." Still, the Army has failed to find a place to dispose of the ash and stockpiles most at the proving ground.

Ash classified as "hazardous" after testing is shipped out of state for disposal.

In 1986, state regulators admonished the Army for improperly disposing of 174 drums of "nonhazardous" ash from the incinerator at the proving ground's Westwood landfill, which is not licensed to accept the material. At the time, the Army said that the disposal was an "error," even though the state said it continued for several years.

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