Army to seek waste disposal options

April 13, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The Army promised yesterday to seek alternatives to burning the stockpile of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground, provided Congress agrees.

In an inch-thick report delivered to lawmakers, the Army warned that alternative technology would take five years to develop, and the research might cost $200 million.

Yesterday's action was the first formal commitment by the Army to pursue a disposal method other than incineration -- if Congress approves and would pay the added cost.

"We're listening," Mark Evans, a top Army official in the nationwide disposal program and a principal author of the report, said of opposition to incineration.

Lawmakers had called for the report on "alternative demilitarization technology" because of citizen resistance to the planned incineration of 30,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons stored at eight U.S. sites.

Of those depots, Aberdeen, northeast of Baltimore, has the largest surrounding population: 300,000 people within 15 miles.

Under the Army's incineration plan, construction of a disposal plant at Aberdeen would start in 1998, and burning would begin in 2001. The likely alternative is called neutralization -- a chemical process to detoxify the agent or a combination of chemical and biological methods.

Neutralization might succeed at Aberdeen because the only chemical weapons stored at the 72,000-acre installation are bulk quantities of mustard agent, not munitions with explosive charges that the Army says must be burned.

"There's some work done . . . that shows a lot of promise," Mr. Evans said of neutralization. "There's going to be some problems transferring that to an industrial process."

In the report to Congress, the Army said that neutralizing Aberdeen's 1,500 tons of mustard agent could cost as much as $900 million, compared to the estimated $489 million needed for incineration at the facility.

Research required for neutralization and the cost of longer storage account for the increase.

Neutralization also will be studied for disposal of a stockpile of bulk nerve agent in Indiana. The six other stockpile sites -- in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon and Utah -- should proceed with incineration, the Army said.

A comparison of the safety of neutralization and incineration must await the results of pilot-scale neutralization research, which would occur at the Tooele Army Depot near Salt Lake City, Utah, the report said.

Mustard agent is a known carcinogen that can cause lasting damage to the lungs, eyes and skin.

If neutralization replaces incineration at Aberdeen, the United States would have to request a five-year extension of the disposal deadline of 2005 contained in an international treaty on chemical weapons, the Army said. The Army has built its first full-scale chemical weapons incinerator at Tooele, which it hopes to begin operating in February.

Although a test incinerator on remote Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean has experienced mechanical problems, delays and a small release of nerve agent March 24, the National Research Council recently said the incineration program should proceed, with more safeguards such as carbon filters on smokestacks.

Residents of Maryland and elsewhere recently asked Congress to halt all funding for incineration of the weapons and agents, fearing accidents and long-term risks of the burning. Yesterday's report disappointed some activists.

"Our particular fight is not over," said Linda Koplovitz, a Bel Air resident who heads a group called Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment and is a member of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a nationwide organization fighting incineration. She had hoped the Army would strongly advocate neutralization at Aberdeen.

In response, Brig. Gen. Walter L. Busbee, director of the Army's Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency, said: "I feel this is a very substantial commitment." He said the Army is seeking permission to begin neutralization research this summer, using $25 million already authorized for the disposal program.

"With the shrinking defense budget, cost will become a factor," said Christopher Griffin, a top aide to Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, 2nd District Republican. Her district includes Aberdeen.

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, said she "will continue to press the Army to pursue new, safer and more reliable" disposal methods and fight for "full funding" of such methods.

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