New Answer to a Burning Question

February 15, 1994

The stacks of white steel cylinders lying on their sides inside a barbed wire compound under armed guard at Aberdeen Proving Ground have long posed a scary dilemma for the military post in Harford County.

To continue storing in open air these 1,500 one-ton containers of toxic mustard agent (often erroneously called mustard gas) or to incinerate the chemicals at high temperature -- which is the safer choice? The chemical weapons are obsolete, yet their potential menace has never been defanged over the 40 years they have been stockpiled at Aberdeen since World War II.

This month a government scientific panel endorsed a third option, on-site chemical neutralization that could minimize the potential public risks raised over the past decade and may be less costly than the $450 million incinerator project at APG.

The National Research Council study committee says chemical treatment of the dangerous wastes is an "attractive alternative" to incineration at Aberdeen and at Newport, Ind. (but not at six other military sites where chemical warfare agents are loaded in rockets and other munitions.) The committee report thus proposes the possibility of different destruction options for different chemical weapons sites, in contrast to the Army's monolithic solution of incineration.

The chemical treatment alternative is not perfect: the neutralized material would have to be shipped off site to an existing incinerator for further reduction. That means finding an acceptable incinerator and an acceptable transport plan to get it there.

Federal law and an international agreement call for the disabling of all chemical weapons by 2004. A year ago, Congress voted to delay the incineration deadline of 1999 in order to explore treatment options and provide for local citizen participation in the decision. The NRC panel has confirmed an alternative, and a Maryland citizens commission will make its comments on the committee report to the Army and to Congress later this year.

For nearly a decade, a growing number of residents on both sides of the bay have opposed incineration at APG, fearing a sudden accident in the furnace or the steady release of unburned residues during routine operation. Their persistent protests have now led to a promising option. But the final decision will be up to Congress, which must carefully evaluate the advantages of non-incineration of the deadly stores at APG.

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