Citizens group plans meetings on waste

January 23, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

As a panel of scientists prepares to recommend alternatives to incinerating the nation's obsolete stockpiles of chemical warfare agents at Aberdeen Proving Ground and elsewhere, a Maryland citizens commission is holding its first public meetings on the hotly debated disposal issue.

The nine-member commission is one of three established by Congress last year to address the public's concerns over stockpile disposal at Army installations in Maryland, Kentucky and Indiana, which have the smallest amounts of lethal nerve and mustard agents but some of the largest surrounding populations.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently appointed the Maryland commission's members, most of whom are from Harford, Kent and Baltimore counties.

The Maryland group has scheduled one meeting in Harford County and another in Kent County for Jan. 31. More formal hearings will be held later.

The Army proposed in 1988 to incinerate the estimated 30,000 tons of agents and munitions stored at Aberdeen and seven other U.S. sites after Congress ordered the stockpiles destroyed several years earlier.

But Congress last year ordered the service to take a closer look at disposal methods that may be safer and cheaper, such as chemical neutralization, biological degradation or incineration methods that produce no air pollutants.

The Aberdeen stockpile, an estimated 1,500 tons of mustard agent stored in 1-ton steel containers on the shores of the Bush River, has 60,000 people within about five miles, the largest citizen population around any of the eight Army stockpile sites.

But the proving ground's stockpile also is viewed as the most stable, because it has no munitions and because the possibility of an accident that would affect neighboring communities is remote.

Incineration opponents argue that the Army should take its time in choosing a more suitable disposal option.

Mustard agent is a syrupy liquid that freezes when the temperature falls below 58 degrees. The agent blisters the skin and burns the eyes and respiratory system. In low concentrations, it can cause chronic injuries; in high concentrations, it is fatal.

Citizens commissions were established to give residents near the stockpile sites a stronger voice in the long-running debate over disposal options.

The Army's $9 billion incineration plan for the eight sites has sparked fears that the incinerators will pollute the air and remain as permanent hazardous-waste disposal plants.

The Army estimates that an incinerator at the proving ground would cost $438 million.

By fall, the Maryland commission intends to report to Congress after reviewing recommendations on alternative disposal methods from the National Research Council and the Army.

"The people have a direct line to Congress," said John E. Nunn III, a public defender in Kent County who co-chairs the Maryland panel with George Englesson, a former Aberdeen mayor.

Mr. Englesson and other commission members said they hoped that the federal government would eventually provide money so the panel could hire consultants.

"It is such a complicated issue," said Katharine K. Hutchinson, another commission member who lives in Kent, which is several miles downwind from the proposed incinerator site on the proving ground. "The more information we can gather and disseminate, the better," she said.

In early February, the National Research Council, a private organization that advises federal agencies, is scheduled to release its recommendations on alternative disposal methods.

Army officials expect the council to recommend more in-depth study of several options. One method under study involves chemically treating the mustard agent, then "feeding" the byproduct to two strains of bacteria.

The Army has argued that alternatives to incineration need more study. For many years, high-temperature incineration has been its principal means of destroying agents.

Open burning of chemicals, including some captured from foreign armies, occurred at the proving ground around 1950.

Until Congress decides whether to allow incineration at any of the stockpile sites, "the program as a whole is pretty much on hold," said Marilyn Tischbin, a spokeswoman for the Army's Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency, which has its headquarters at the proving ground.

The research council is also scheduled to release two reports on the adequacy of environmental monitoring at agent incinerators and the Army's tests of incineration on Johnston Island, a remote island 750 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Congress has set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2004, for destruction of the stockpiles, which corresponds with the deadline in an international accord.

CITIZENS ADVISORY COMMISSION MEETINGS

The Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission has scheduled its first public meetings for Jan. 31.

* The Harford County meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at Edgewood High School, 2415 Willoughby Beach Road in Edgewood.

* The Kent County meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Kent County commissioners hearing room in the county courthouse, 103 N. Cross St. in Chestertown.

Members of the citizens commission, which will report to Congress this year, are:

* Co-chairman George Englesson, former Aberdeen mayor.

* Co-chairman John E. Nunn III, attorney from Worton in Kent County.

* Alvin L. Bowles, Maryland Department of the Environment official.

* Steven K. Broyles, engineer from Baltimore County.

* Katharine K. Hutchinson, Worton resident.

* Linda Koplovitz, Bel Air resident.

* David McMillion, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

* Benjamin Dan Riley, Edgewood resident.

* H. Thomas Sisk Jr., Kent County District judge.

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