Airfield worries panel

June 09, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

A state citizens' advisory commission says the Army should close an airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground that is used extensively by the Maryland National Guard or move a nearby stockpile of deadly mustard agent to lessen the risk of a serious accident.

In a recent letter to Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, the Aberdeen commander, the commission said the Army has created an unnecessary risk of an accident by maintaining operations at Weide Army Airfield one mile from the stockpile.

"The Army has chosen to store the mustard stockpile outdoors near an airstrip . . . thereby creating the most dangerous stockpile storage site at the most densely populated storage site in the United States," the commission said. It asked for a response by June 24.

The commission was chartered by Congress and appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer this year to give residents a stronger voice in the debate over how to dispose of the obsolete chemical weapons stockpile at Aberdeen. Similar advisory panels have been established to address disposal of seven other stockpiles nationwide.

A recent National Research Council report said that, because the 1,500 tons of mustard agent is kept near the airfield, Aberdeen PTC has the highest risk of continued storage of any of the eight chemical weapons stockpile sites in the country.

Nearly 300,000 people live within 15 miles of the Aberdeen stockpile, located at Eagle Point on the proving ground's Edgewood area.

The mustard agent has been stored at Aberdeen since 1941. There has never been a leak or an accident, the Army says.

Concerns about the airfield have been expressed by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and Kent County commissioners.

The Army wants to build as many as eight large incinerators to dispose of the stockpiles by 2005, saying it is not safe to continue storing the material. A $489 million disposal plant is planned for Aberdeen.

But, after pressure from citizen groups and Congress, the Army recently agreed to study such alternatives as chemical and biological means of detoxifying the material.

Members of the Maryland citizens' commission and others say alleviating the risk posed by the stockpile's proximity to the airfield will allow more time to study disposal alternatives.

Concerns about the airfield prompted a strong response from the National Guard.

"Weide Airfield is vital to the Maryland Army National Guard's ability to perform its federal and state missions," Capt. Hunt Kerrigan, a Guard spokesman in Baltimore, said yesterday.

The airfield, with 70 aircraft and 88 personnel, is the Guard's major airstrip, Captain Kerrigan said. The aircraft are used to respond to emergencies, such as hurricanes and floods.

In a typical year, about 10,600 flights of military and civilian aircraft occur at Weide airfield, proving ground officials said.

Gary Holloway, a spokesman for the Aberdeen commander, said yesterday that the Army is preparing a response to the concerns expressed by the commission and others.

He and other Army officials said there are risks and difficulties in moving the stockpile and closing the airfield.

In a letter sent Monday to Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., Mr. Sarbanes said the commission's concerns "merit an immediate review of the risk of keeping the stockpile close to Weide Field."

In earlier correspondence, Mr. West told Mr. Sarbanes that the Army plans to update its risk analysis for the stockpile by the summer of 1996. In his letter Monday, the senator said that schedule was "unacceptable."

Kent County commissioners also raised questions about the airfield in a May 24 letter to the Army.

"It almost seems too logical," said H. Thomas Sisk Jr., a Kent County District judge and member of the citizens' commission. "We are planning for a risk that can almost be eliminated."

The risk of an aircraft accident at the stockpile has prompted a multimillion-dollar emergency-preparedness program in Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Kent counties. In April, more than 500 people simulated an accident at the stockpile involving a Maryland National Guard helicopter.

A plane crash and fire at the mustard storage site could result in a toxic cloud that could drift into surrounding communities, Army officials say. But they say the odds of that happening are 100 million-to-1.

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