Gilchrest seeking to block work on Army incinerator

May 25, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is seeking to prevent construction of a $489 million incinerator to burn Aberdeen Proving Ground's stockpile of mustard agent until the Army seriously examines alternative disposal methods.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to act on amendments to next year's defense authorization bill this week, and Mr. Gilchrest said yesterday that he is pushing the Aberdeen measure.

The 1st District Republican also said he is working with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, to pass the same language in the Senate.

Mr. Gilchrest originally proposed language in the fiscal 1995 defense bill that would have prevented the Army from spending money on design and construction of an Aberdeen incinerator until the service compared the safety and cost of different disposal methods.

The Army objected, saying it wants to keep its options open and begin design of the Aberdeen plant next May. Mr. Gilchrest agreed to limit the prohibition to construction spending.

Under the current plan, construction of an incinerator to burn Aberdeen's mustard agent, a chemical and carcinogen that causes blistering, would start in 1998. It would begin operating in 2001.

The Army's plan to operate huge incinerators at Aberdeen and seven other U.S. sites where obsolete chemical weapons are stored has been the source of intense controversy for nearly a decade.

Congress has ordered the stockpiles destroyed by 2005.

For several years, Kent County residents in Mr. Gilchrest's district have been just as active in the disposal debate as their counterparts in Harford and Baltimore counties. Kent County is several miles across the Chesapeake Bay from where the incinerator would be built.

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

Incineration opponents fear that burning Aberdeen's 1,500 tons of deadly mustard agent and the other stockpiles is too risky, saying accidents could release dangerous amounts of the agents and that the burning could produce byproducts that pose long-term health risks.

They also worry that the incinerators would remain as permanent hazardous-waste disposal plants.

After several years of lobbying by incineration opponents, the Army pledged last month to spend as much as $200 million studying disposal methods that don't involve burning -- specifically, chemical and biological means of neutralizing the material.

"If there was no push in Congress to study neutralization, I don't think the Army would study neutralization," Mr. Gilchrest said.

The Army has said neutralization shows promise for destroying Aberdeen's stockpile and a nerve agent stockpile in Indiana. Those stockpiles consist only of bulk chemicals, not the chemical-filled munitions the Army says must be burned.

Incineration opponents don't trust the Army to make good on its pledge to pursue neutralization.

"It's kind of hard to believe they are seriously considering neutralization if they are going ahead with the design and construction of an incinerator" at Aberdeen, said John Nunn, a Kent County attorney who is co-chairman of a state-appointed citizens commission studying the issue.

In response, Army spokeswoman Marilyn Tischbin said the service had made an "honest commitment" to studying neutralization. "We're willing to spend the money to find it if we can make [disposal] safer and cheaper," she said.

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