Incinerator foes favorAberdeen pilot plant

January 08, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

After years of fighting an Army plan to burn 1,500 tons of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground, incinerator opponents said last week that the service should be allowed to build a pilot plant at the Harford County base to test new, possibly safer ways to detoxify the material.

A state-appointed citizens panel, whose members include many longtime opponents of the Army's proposed incinerator, said Wednesday at a meeting with a committee from the National Research Council that they cannot stand in the way of the new plant if they want the Army to abandon incineration.

Members of the citizens panel are from Baltimore, Harford and Kent counties.

A pilot plant is an intermediate step between a small-scale laboratory test and larger-scale industrial process. Because of environmental concerns, such plants usually are built in remote areas.

"If we want it badly enough, we should be willing to accept that risk," said Linda Koplovitz, a citizens panel member from Bel Air.

The National Research Council is advising the Army on its $10 billion chemical weapons disposal program, which was ordered by Congress and involves Aberdeen and seven other U.S. sites.

Dr. Richard Magee, chairman of the council's committee studying chemical weapons disposal, said the citizens panel's willingness to accept a pilot plant is an important first step.

"It removed a roadblock that we were perceiving would occur," said Dr. Magee, executive director of the Center for Environmental Engineering and Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Army scientists recently began a $45 million research project on chemical and biological methods of destroying the lethal agents, including Aberdeen's 50-year-old stockpile of mustard agent, which is stored in steel tanks near the Bush River.

A pilot plant at Aberdeen could cost $150 million, the Army estimates.

Mustard agent is a long-lasting carcinogen that also blisters the skin, eyes and lungs.

The citizens panel, formally the Maryland Citizens' Advisory Commission for Chemical Weapons Demilitarization, fears that emissions from the proposed incinerator could cause chronic health problems in people who live and work near it. The panel also has raised the prospect of accidents at the incinerator.

A 1993 state law requires the Army to "fully" investigate alternatives to burning.

The Army's test incinerator on remote Johnston Island in the Pacific has released small amounts of lethal agent and has had several other accidents, none of which resulted in injuries. The first mainland chemical weapons incinerator, near Salt Lake City, is being tested and has been the focus of a debate about safety.

Incineration critics say waste from a neutralization plant would be more manageable than incinerator emissions.

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