Neutralization of mustard agent urged Pilot program suggested for Aberdeen weapons

September 25, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A National Research Council scientific panel has recommended that the Army begin a pilot program to neutralize 1,500 tons of highly toxic mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground as an alternative to incineration.

The 14-member panel had been asked by the Army to study and evaluate five technologies that could be alternatives to incinerating the chemical weapons, which is strongly opposed by residents living near APG.

The NRC panel recommended that the Army try the neutralization-biodegradation process in which the mustard agent is neutralized by adding it to a reactor containing near-boiling water; that mixture is then mixed with sewer sludge from the Back River wastewater treatment plant for biodegradation.

The panel said the possibility of an accident endangering nearby residents is low because the process is done at a low temperature compared with other processes and at near atmospheric pressure.

"These technologies are constantly evolving, and test results tTC show that all of them can break down the chemical agents in a laboratory," said Richard Magee, the executive director of the Center for Environmental Engineering and Science at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, who chaired the panel.

"However, only neutralization technologies have been tested on a large scale to destroy chemical agents," he said. "The processes are simple and safe, and the systems also meet the technology criteria expressed by citizens in the surrounding communities."

Although the Army prefers incineration as a safe method for destroying chemical weapons at Aberdeen and seven other sites around the country, it is has been directed by Congress to look into alternative methods to eliminate the aging stockpile by 2004.

The neutralization technology has gained widespread support among residents living near APG, who fear possible environmental, health and safety risks of incineration. At two community meetings in March before the NRC panel, residents expressed their opposition to incineration and their hopes that the Army would pursue an alternative method.

John E. Nunn III, chairman of a citizens' advisory commission on chemical weapons disposal, said his panel recommended in 1993 that the Army pursue the neutralization technique.

"The NRC report confirms what a lot of people thought and believed for a long time," Nunn said.

"Neutralization seems to be a simple process that a lot of people can understand," said Nunn, who described the end product as "five times less toxic than beer."

The NRC panel did not compare neutralization and incineration and did not address the latter in the report.

Nunn said he wasn't interested in a debate on whether incineration is safe. But given the opposition to incineration, neutralization is a method the Army and the community can accept.

"We're saying, 'Let's get rid of this debate about incineration. Let's get on with something that everyone can agree on,' " Nunn said.

The citizens' panel has two weeks to make its comments on the NRC report to Lt. Col. Steven M. Landry, APG program manager for chemical demilitarization. The Army will present its recommendation to the Department of Defense next month.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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