APG prepares for the worst

April 15, 1994|By Bruce Reid

A bus load of observers chugged down the back roads of Aberdeen Proving Ground, past laboratories protected by armed guards. Jim Allingham casually described the impending emergency exercise.

"What we're trying to do today is generate a toxic cloud that will be carried off the installation," said the spokesman for the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command.

Although the "cloud" created by civilian workers was harmless smoke from burning straw, it wafted from a deadly place -- the Chemical Agent Storage Yard bordering the Bush River.

Wednesday's exercise involved a simulated helicopter crash into Aberdeen's stockpile of mustard agent -- rows and rows of white-painted canisters stacked neatly and surrounded by fences, monitors and cameras.

Roughly 500 people from the Army, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state, and Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Kent counties participated in the exercise.

A worst-case scenario was played out in the cold rain. The chances such an incident could actually occur are 100 million to one, the Army says.

Here's the drill:

A Maryland Army National Guard helicopter plunges into the stockpile, puncturing four steel containers holding liquid mustard agent.

The crewmen bail out, and both eventually die.

Inside the stockpile, which is two football fields long and one football field wide, four other people lie injured. Two are guards, and two are workers checking the containers. One eventually dies.

Another guard wearing a gas mask arrives quickly and starts the alert.

Within minutes -- if everything works as planned -- crews are responding to the scene, tending the injured, containing the fire.

Meanwhile, the path of a mustard vapor cloud is plotted by computers. Nearly 300,000 people live within 15 miles.

Authorities in surrounding areas are advised how to respond. Thousands of people are told to stay indoors.

No deaths are expected beyond the proving ground's fence.

But the vapor travels about 12 miles, in an elongated cloud straddling the border between Baltimore and Harford counties.

"If you had an accident of this dimension, it would be impossible to say that there would be no exposures" to civilians, said Brig. Gen. George E. Friel, head of the Chemical and Biological Defense Command.

The exercise was part of the nationwide Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, which is expected to cost nearly $700 million.A formal review is planned, but the Army's preliminary conclusion is that the exercise went well.

In the mid-1980s, after the Army formally acknowledged the existence of the Aberdeen stockpile and others like it, Congress ordered the service to ensure that surrounding communities were prepared to respond to an accident involving deadly mustard and nerve agents.

Aberdeen is one of eight U.S. depots storing obsolete chemical warfare agents and weapons. The proving ground harbors 1,500 tons of mustard agent, a known carcinogen that is deadly in large exposures and causes burns and lasting damage to the lungs, eyes and skin.

The proving ground is the birthplace of the U.S. chemical warfare program. Still the center of chemical and biological defense research, it also is a focus of national debate over destroying the now-banned chemicals.

Produced in large quantities at Aberdeen until about 1950, mustard agent, along with other chemicals, caused more than 1 million casualties in World War I. It hasn't been used by or against U.S. troops since then.

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