Neighbors prefer to neutralize toxic agent Pentagon undecided on process at APG

March 17, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

To incinerate or neutralize? That remains the Pentagon's question on how to destroy the 1,500 tons of highly toxic mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

But among those who live near APG, the alternative winning favor is a neutralization-biodegradation process that will turn the blister agent into a liquefied byproduct described as "five times less toxic than beer."

"Neutralization is self-contained, and the effluent from the reaction can be tested prior to discharge, unlike incineration," said John E. Nunn III, chairman of a citizens' advisory commission on chemical weapons disposal, during a hearing yesterday at Edgewood High School.

Area residents are concerned about the possibility of long-term health risks and accidents from incineration at the Army base.

More than three dozen residents attended the hearing sponsored by a 14-member scientific panel of the National Research Council, which is slated to recommend to the Army by August whether any of the alternatives should be used in a pilot project.

Although the Army favors incineration as a safe method to destroy the chemical weapons at Aberdeen and seven other sites around the country, Con- gress has ordered the Pentagon to look into alternative technologies to destroy the aging stockpile by 2004.

The Army is expected to recommend to the Pentagon by October whether there should be a neutralization pilot project or plans for incineration should move ahead.

"The message against incineration has come through loud and clear," Richard S. Magee, panel chairman and professor of mechanical and chemical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said during the hearing.

A similar hearing conducted by the scientific panel Friday night, across the Chesapeake Bay in Chestertown, drew about 75 residents and produced strong support for the neutralization-biodegradation process rather than incineration.

The NRC panel is reviewing five neutralization technologies, including three from private companies whose methods for breaking down the mustard agent range from using hydrogen to setting it in a "molten metal bath."

nTC But Mr. Nunn's advisory commission and other citizens favor an Army effort based at APG that would neutralize the mustard agent by adding it to a reactor containing near-boiling water. Then the mixture would be poured into other reactors for the biodegradation process, in which it is fed to microorganisms from the Back River wastewater treatment plant.

The resulting wastewater from the process is "five times less toxic than beer," Mr. Nunn said.

Army Lt. Col. Steven M. Landry, APG's program manager for Chemical Demilitarization, said with a smile that the beer comparison was based on a single type of toxicity test.

Colonel Landry said the "neut-bio" testing was done on small amounts, and researchers are working on a 40-gallon reactor. The next step, he said, would be the pilot-scale 2,000-gallon reactor should the process win panel and Army approval.

Linda Koplovitz, a member of the citizens' advisory panel, said yesterday that the public likely would prefer such a "low temperature, low pressure" technique. Using potentially explosive hydrogen as part of any mustard agent destruction program would be "an accident waiting to happen," she said.

John Myrick of Edgewood, president of Neighbors Involved in the Community of Edgewood, a coalition of community groups, said he favors the Army's "neut-bio" proposal.

But he wants to make sure that any future destruction facility would "disappear just as the agent did."

"I don't want a facility that 50 years later is still here," he said.

Some residents complained that the scientific panel lacks a medical representative who might be able to assess the health effects of such destruction proposals, while another resident sought more time for citizen comment.

Mr. Magee said that while there were no medical experts on his panel, detailed health studies would be completed before any mustard agent is destroyed. Though the panel would not ask for more time, Mr. Magee stressed its review would be a "very intensive evaluation" of these technologies. And he noted that the panel only makes recommendations; decisions rest with the Army.

The chairman gave no hint where the members stood on the alternatives to incineration, but Mr. Nunn and other residents are hopeful "neut-bio" will win approval from the panel and the Army.

For the Army to endorse that move, the process must be less costly, safer and able to destroy the mustard agent by the 2004 deadline. Mr. Nunn predicts it will pass all three tests.

Early estimates show that a neutralization facility would cost about $400 million, while estimates on an incinerator have ranged from $500 million to $693 million. And though the Army says incineration is safe, Mr. Nunn said, "No one's ever compared it with these other technologies."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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