Unless Congress changes it, federal law could keep the Army from using a promising new method to destroy 1,500 tons of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The law requires any new method used to destroy the mustard agent be "significantly safer" than the Army's original plan, which calls for a $500 million incinerator to be built at the Harford County post, said members of a statewide commission studying disposal of the Aberdeen stockpile.
However, Army researchers and commission members say a chemical and biological "neutralization" process under study at Aberdeen -- it detoxifies mustard agent in near-boiling water and uses common bacteria in sewage sludge to produce a nonhazardous waste -- has the potential to be a low-cost, safe way of destroying the stockpile.
Army officials acknowledged that the federal law, as written, could be an obstacle.
"So we come up with a situation where what we have is extremely successful, but we can't use it," H. Thomas Sisk Jr., a Kent County District judge and member of the citizens panel, said at a meeting with Army researchers on Tuesday. The panel, formally known as the Maryland Citizens Advisory Commission for Chemical Weapons Demilitarization, has members from Baltimore, Harford and Kent counties.
In response, members of Maryland's congressional delegation said yesterday they would fight to change the law if necessary.
The criteria for finding the safest and cheapest way of destroying the stockpile "should be the same for any process," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. "We'll change the law," he said.
"We would not want the language in this legislation to serve as a roadblock for moving forward," said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, another Maryland Democrat, said she supports the neutralization process.
The law provided $45 million for the Army research on new methods of getting rid of Aberdeen's mustard agent and a nerve agent stockpile in Indiana. The Maryland and Indiana stockpiles contain only bulk amounts of the toxic liquids, not chemical-filled munitions stored at six other U.S. sites.
In addition to the undefined requirement for a new method to be "significantly safer" than incineration, the law requires the method to be cheaper or no more expensive.
Congress has told the Army to destroy its 30,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons in eight states, including Maryland, by 2005. The Aberdeen research, prompted by fears that incineration will be unsafe and too expensive, has spurred hopes that alternatives to burning can be used at a number of stockpile sites.
Colorado residents want the Army to explore using the hot water-sludge method to destroy 12,000 tons of mustard-filled artillery shells stored at the Pueblo Army Depot. So far, Army officials say chemical-filled munitions must be burned to remove toxic residue from the shells.