Army to study risk at Aberdeen stockpile

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

In response to pressure from a state citizens' panel and U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Army says it is considering ways of reducing the risk of a serious accident involving Aberdeen Proving Ground's stockpile of mustard agent.

Officials at the Army's Chemical Materiel Destruction Agency said yesterday that they have commissioned a study, to be completed this fall, of whether the 1,500-ton stockpile can be housed in earth-covered bunkers or other structures, or moved farther from an airfield used extensively by the Maryland National Guard.

The Army agency also said it has received Pentagon approval to spend $21 million to begin testing chemical and biological methods of destroying Aberdeen's stockpile and a nerve agent stockpile in Indiana.

"This is a pretty up-front demonstration of the Army's commitment" to investigate neutralization as an alternative to building a $500 million incinerator at Aberdeen, said Mark Evans. He is a top official at the agency, which has its headquarters at the Harford County installation.

He said the Army hopes to receive congressional approval next month to spend an additional $10 million to study neutralization, which citizens argue could be much safer and cheaper than incineration.

As the disposal studies continue, the Army is being pressured to make the Aberdeen stockpile safer.

This summer, the panel; Mr. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat; and the Kent County commissioners urged the Army to review the safety of storing the mustard agent one mile from Weide Army Airfield.

They said that safer storage would give the Army more time to investigate neutralization.

"It's a step in the right direction," John Nunn, co-chairman of the citizens' panel, said of the Army's new study. "We ought to mitigate the risk if we can do it."

The citizens' panel, known as the Maryland Citizens' Advisory Commission for Chemical Weapons Demilitarization, was created by Congress and appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to examine Army plans for disposing of the stockpile.

A recent study by the National Research Council said that, among the eight U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles, that at Aberdeen poses the highest risk of a serious accident during storage because it is outdoors near an airfield and because it is near a densely populated area.

Nearly 300,000 people live within 15 miles of the Aberdeen stockpile, which consists of liquid mustard agent -- a known human carcinogen and blistering substance -- stored in steel tanks near Bush River.

The Army says the worst-case accident that would affect neighboring communities -- a plane crash that would cause a large fire at the stockpile -- is predicted to occur once every 62,500 years. Such an accident could cause more than 2,000 deaths, the Army says.

The Army wants up to eight chemical weapons incinerators in the United States. Congress has told the Army to destroy the stockpiles by 2005.

Yesterday, Army officials were tracking the movement of Hurricane John in the South Pacific, because the storm is expected to pass less than 100 miles from Johnston Island, site of the service's prototype chemical weapons incinerator.

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