Incineration of chemical weapons protested

March 22, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of environmental activists called on Congress yesterday to halt the Army's "reckless rush" to incinerate 30,000 tons of chemical weapons at eight U.S. sites, including Aberdeen Proving Ground, and asked for immediate funding of research into alternative disposal methods.

In a Capitol Hill news conference, the Chemical Weapons Working Group said alternatives to burning would be safer and cheaper than the $9 billion cost of incineration. They said disassembly of the weapons and neutralization of the lethal chemical agents would meet the requirements of an international treaty for weapons destruction by 2005.

"For those who accuse us of standing in the way of disarmament, let me say that no one is more eager to destroy these weapons than the people who live around them," said Craig Williams, chairman of the coalition and an activist fighting the Army's plan to burn poison-filled munitions in central Kentucky.

"There are those who try to portray this as a green versus peace thing," said Amy E. Smithson, a senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center, a private Washington think tank. "These people are honestly trying to satisfy both needs."

Ms. Smithson, who analyzes chemical weapons treaty issues, said disassembly of the weapons followed by neutralization of the liquid agents would "most likely" satisfy the treaty banning the weapons.

Environmental activists say the Army's test incinerator on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean has had many breakdowns and has not lived up to the claim that the agents or other harmful chemicals are destroyed during the burning. Six of the eight planned incinerators are expected to be operating between 1997 and 2002.

"They can't even operate one of them correctly," Mr. Williams said.

Recently, the National Research Council said incineration of the weapons was safe, adding that neutralization offered an "attractive alternative" at Aberdeen and an Indiana stockpile site.

The activists are pushing for nonincineration-disposal methods at all eight sites. Aberdeen, the Army's center for chemical warfare research, stores 5 percent of the U.S. stockpile, an estimated 1,500 tons of mustard agent.

"Unless they spend money for neutralization, they are never going to develop an alternative technology" for disposal, said John Nunn, a Kent County attorney and a member of the environmental coalition.

The activists, like Congress, also oppose any plan to ship any of the weapons to one or more central disposal sites. Under the current plan, the Army would build incinerators at each stockpile site.

"Everybody is united in not having this stuff transported to anyone else's site," Mr. Nunn said.

Marilyn Tischbin, a spokeswoman for the Army's chemical weapons destruction office, took issue with the activists' portrayal of the Johnston Island incinerator.

She acknowledged that the plant has had "mechanical difficulties," but she said it has not produced unsafe emissions during the destruction of more than 200 tons of mustard and nerve agents. She said the Army is not wedded to incineration, as long as the treaty obligations can be met.

This week, the activists take their case to members of Congress and their staffs. On April 11, the Army is scheduled to report to Congress on whether it intends to pursue alternative disposal methods at any of the eight stockpile sites.

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