Panel tours mustard agent storage site

April 19, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Members of a state-appointed citizens' commission got their first look yesterday at Aberdeen Proving Ground's efforts to lessen the risk of storing 1,500 tons of mustard agent close to a major National Guard airstrip.

The tour of the 50-year-old storage site near Bush River came as the Army was preparing for its annual emergency drill today, in which 500 local, state and federal government officials will practice their response to a major accident involving the stockpile. Aberdeen's stockpile is about a mile from the airstrip. About 300,000 people live within 15 miles, the largest population near any of the eight chemical weapons depots in the United States.

The citizens' commission studying storage of the mustard agent and proposals for its destruction had suggested closing Weide Army Airfield, the Maryland Army National Guard's major helicopter base in the state, to lessen the risk of a crash and resulting fire that could send a toxic cloud drifting into communities on either side of the Chesapeake Bay.

The commission, chartered by Congress and formally known as the Maryland Citizens' Advisory Commission for Chemical Weapons Demilitarization, also suggested moving the stockpile farther from the airstrip or enclosing the mustard agent in impenetrable concrete bunkers.

But, in a study released in February, the Army said the risk of a serious aircraft accident involving the stockpile is not as great as once thought -- 100 million to 1 rather than 1 million to 1. That is because a study of the storage risks in the late 1980s did not account for what the Army calls its strict air-traffic controls around the stockpile.

So far, the Army has stacked empty steel containers atop the containers that hold the liquid mustard agent, and it is studying whether to fill the empty containers with sand or fire-suppression foam. In addition, a team of 15 Army experts has recommended two other measures: building barricades of wood and sand around the stockpile and placing firefighting equipment at the stockpile.

"Now they are taking a more pro-active approach," said John Nunn, co-chairman of the citizens' commission.

Mr. Nunn and others had complained that the Army was spending millions on efforts to respond to a major accident, rather than finding ways to prevent an accident or lessen its consequences.

After pressure from the citizens' panel, Kent County commissioners and the state's congressional delegation, the Army said it could make the stockpile safer at a cost of about $500,000 or less.

Army experts rejected more costly measures, such as building a steel netlike structure over the stockpile.

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