Panel endorses alternative to incinerator at Aberdeen

February 06, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

A national panel of experts says chemical treatment of Aberdeen Proving Ground's mustard agent stockpile offers an "attractive alternative" to building a huge, controversial incinerator to dispose of the lethal material.

A committee of the National Research Council late Friday issued the strongest endorsement to date of alternatives to burning the obsolete chemical warfare agent stockpiles at Aberdeen and Newport, Ind.

The two sites, unlike the six other U.S. stockpiles that must be destroyed by order of Congress, have only liquid chemicals, not the more dangerous and less stable rockets and other munitions filled with mustard and nerve agents.

But the report says the Army can safely burn the agents, with improvements to the incineration method it has tested for three years at remote Johnston Island, 700 southwest of Hawaii.

Although delaying incineration of some stockpiles poses unnecessary safety risks, the report says, those risks are far lower at the Maryland and Indiana sites.

The report was good news to citizen activists near Aberdeen Proving Ground and across Chesapeake Bay in Kent County who have been fighting the Army's incineration plan for nearly a decade. "Since 1985, we have been asking for site-specific decisions," said Linda Koplovitz, a Bel Air resident who heads the group Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment.

"For the first time, they are finally separating Aberdeen and Newport," said John E. Nunn III, a Kent County lawyer who co-chairs a Maryland citizen's commission studying stockpile disposal. "That's a big change from the one-size-fits-all mentality."

Waste could be shipped

Treatment of the proving ground's stockpile, estimated at 1,500 tons, would produce a less toxic material that can be shipped out of state like the other chemical waste produced at the installation, Mr. Nunn said.

The state commission plans to meet tomorrow to begin discussing the new report, which was ordered by Congress last year. The commission plans to provide written comments to the Army by Feb. 21, then a report to Congress later this year.

The Army is planning to submit its comments to Congress by April 4.

A final decision for Aberdeen and other sites "is going to depend on Congress," said Marilyn Tischbin, a spokeswoman for the Army's Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency, which is headquartered at the proving ground.

Congress has ordered all the stockpiles destroyed by 2004. An international treaty has the same deadline, but the accord says the United States needs only to treat the chemicals so they cannot be turned back into warfare agents.

The six other stockpile sites are in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon and Utah.

Local opponents have argued for years that the proving ground, with the largest civilian population of any of the stockpile sites, is too risky a place to build an incinerator they fear will emit dangerous pollutants during routine operation or an accident. In a 1990 letter to the Army, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the state will "insist that transportation alternatives" specific to the proving ground be studied. At the time, the governor said the Army's safe shipment of chemical weapons from Germany to Johnston Island proves that the material can be transported.

In its report released Friday, the scientific panel said chemical neutralization of agents at the Maryland and Indiana sites would require additional, off-site treatment, perhaps at an existing incinerator.

"However, this option depends on finding sites . . . that will accept the neutralized material," said the panel, chaired by Carl R. Peterson, an associate professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It also depends on developing transport routes to these sites that the public will accept," the panel said.

The Army has built one other incinerator, at Tooele, Utah, which is now being tested.

Aberdeen's 50-year-old stockpile of mustard agent is stored in 1-ton steel containers on the shores of the Bush River. The chemical, which freezes at 58 degrees, blisters the skin, and burns the eyes and respiratory system. It can be fatal in high doses and is believed to cause cancer in humans.

The Army's $9 billion incineration plan for all eight sites also has sparked fears that the plants will remain as permanent hazardous-waste disposal facilities. The Army estimates that an incinerator at the proving ground would cost $438 million to build and operate during the mustard agent destruction.

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