Bill could derail plans to incinerate mustard agent HARFORD COUNTY

February 24, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Legislation introduced in Annapolis could present serious obstacles for the Army's plan to incinerate Aberdeen Proving Ground's stockpile of lethal mustard agent.

Although Army officials say they need to study the proposed bill before commenting in detail, they add that it appears to impose stricter permit and operating conditions than legislation already enacted in Kentucky and Indiana, where two other incinerators are planned to burn deadly chemical agents.

The Kentucky law, passed last year, says that state shall not grant a permit for an incinerator unless the Army demonstrates that no safer treatment or disposal method "exists or could be developed." The Maryland bill contains the same language.

Charles Baronian, the Army's program manager for chemical "demilitarization" at the Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency at the proving ground, acknowledged that the service "probably can't meet" all the provisions of the Kentucky law.

Congress last year ordered the Army to take a second look at alternatives to burning the mustard and nerve agents stored at eight U.S. sites. The Army maintains that no alternative technology, such as neutralization by chemical or biological processes, will likely be available soon enough to meet the congressionally imposed deadline of 2004 for destroying the agents.

The Maryland bill was introduced last week by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat, at the request of incinerator opponents in Kent County, several miles east of the Chesapeake Bay from where the proving ground incinerator would be built. No hearing date has been set.

The bill also would require the Army to destroy 99.9999 percent of the mustard agent during incineration.

Five percent of the Army's stockpile of obsolete chemical warfare agents are stored at the proving ground, a major research and weapons-testing installation in Harford County.

Bulk containers of mustard agent are kept in a highly monitored, fenced site bordering the Bush River. The syrupy liquid, all of which is about 50 years old, can blister the skin and eyes and burn the respiratory system.

lTC In lower doses it can cause chronic injuries; in high doses, it can be fatal.

Mustard agent also is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

The size of the entire U.S. stockpile at the proving ground and the seven other U.S. sites, which Congress told the Army it must destroy, is estimated by outside experts at 30,000 tons. If that were true, then the proving ground has an estimated 1,500 tons. The exact amount is classified.

In addition, the bill would require the Army to prove the safety of incineration at a comparable plant in the United States before receiving a permit for a facility at the proving ground.

"We want actual operating information, not just test burns," said John E. Nunn, a Kent County attorney who opposes incineration.

Mr. Baronian said the Army has successfully destroyed 160,000 pounds of mustard agent since last summer at a test incinerator operating on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.

The Maryland bill also would require that Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Kent counties approve a state operating permit and an evacuation plan.

Del. Mary Louise Preis, a Democrat who chairs the Harford County delegation, said she still needs to review the bill. But, she said, "The concept that local governments be fully informed and involved is paramount to me."

Opponents in Kent and Harford have worked together in drafting the bill. They have consulted with incineration critics in Kentucky and other states where the agents are stockpiled.

Linda Koplovitz, a Bel Air resident who heads a group called Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment, said: "We're quite optimistic that our efforts will be successful at stopping the Army" from building a mustard agent incinerator at the proving ground.

The intent of such legislation is not to prohibit incineration but to set standards for a "particularly risky activity," said Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, a private environmental watchdog organization.

Mr. Williams also is the national spokesman for the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of incinerator opponents in the United States and abroad.

The Army says such a plant at the proving ground would operate for about a year starting late this decade and would cost an estimated $438 million.

Incineration critics say the Army has not demonstrated that it can burn the agents without releasing harmful chemicals into the air, and they say the cost of the incineration program is spiraling out of control. The cost of the incineration plan has quadrupled to nearly $8 billion since it was proposed in the mid-1980s.

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