Old foes talking weapons disposal

March 19, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

In a small office at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Russian chemist Valentin L. Rubailo speaks of perhaps the biggest hurdle in the effort to dispose of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.

"It is very difficult to explain this to the normal citizen," said Dr. Rubailo. He is one of six Russian government scientists visiting the proving ground to study disposal methods with their U.S. counterparts.

Despite the scientific ingenuity and the billions needed to clean up the Cold War waste, it all hinges on convincing the public that it can be done safely. That has proven to be more difficult than either country expected, because the destruction would occur in places such as Aberdeen, where years of testing and producing the weapons have left deep environmental scars.

Aton Y. Utkin, another visiting Russian scientist, acknowledges a fact that his Aberdeen counterparts know very well.

"People will never like it because these are weapons," he said. "These are toxic agents."

As the two countries work together on the technical and political challenges -- a process in which the proving ground in Harford County plays a major role -- environmental activists from the United States and Russia are joining forces to oppose incineration of the lethal chemicals.

They fear that incinerators will be prone to accidents, emit pollut

ants over large areas and be used to burn other types of dangerous military waste. The Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of environmental activists living near the eight U.S. stockpile sites, including Aberdeen, will meet this weekend in Bethesda. Two Russian activists, including Lev Fyodorov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, are scheduled to speak to the group.

Dr. Fyodorov has spoken out against the former Soviet Union, accusing it of causing thousands of deaths and widespread pTC contamination in and around its chemical weapons production plants. Russia inherited the chemical weapons from the Soviet Union.

The United States and Russia signed a treaty last year that calls for the weapons to be destroyed by 2005. U.S. taxpayers have so far provided $55 million to help get the Russian disposal program started. Moscow says it can't meet the treaty deadline without financial help from the West. "The sharing of problems in both countries . . . is critical to put the environmental and public health aspects of this treaty into focus," said Craig Williams, chairman of the Chemical Weapons Working Group and an environmental activist fighting the Army's plan to burn poison-filled munitions that it stores in central Kentucky.

Next week, Dr. Fyodorov and his fellow activist are scheduled to speak publicly in Joppatowne and Chestertown, Kent County. Then they plan to travel to communities near the seven other U.S. stockpile sites.

Dr. Fyodorov also played a role accusing Moscow of continuing secret research into new lethal agents while publicly promising to destroy its chemical weapons.

In late 1992, The Sun published some of the first accounts of the accusations, which led to criminal charges of betraying state secrets against another Russian scientist, Vil S. Mirzayanov.

Last week, Russian prosecutors dropped their case against the former chemical weapons scientist after strong protests from human-rights activists. Activists following the weapons-destruction efforts in both countries are pushing for alternatives to incineration, including processes that use chemicals or bacteria to neutralize the material.

U.S. activists were encouraged last month when the National Research Council said neutralization might work in places such as Aberdeen, which stores bulk quantities of mustard agent in steel containers and does not have the less stable chemical-filled rockets, artillery shells or other munitions.

Early next month, the Army is scheduled to deliver a report to Congress on whether it intends to try alternatives to incineration at any of the eight stockpile sites.

To date, the Army has said incineration is the only proven destruction method that can enable the government to meet the treaty deadline.

But, said Linda Koplovitz, a Bel Air activist fighting incineration, "the Army has not convinced us to accept it and it's not going to."

The United States has roughly 30,000 tons of mustard and nerve agents. The Army maintains that incineration is safe, based on tests at a prototype plant on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.

The Army hopes to begin operating its first mainland incinerator near Salt Lake City early next year.

Russia has an estimated 40,000 tons of the material, the world's largest stockpile. Russia is still in the early stages of its disposal program, and some in the government have stated a preference against incineration.

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