Toxic burn plans off Army OKs proposal to destroy chemical by boiling, mixing

Victory for residents

Aberdeen's stockpile of mustard agent was to be incinerated

December 10, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Some 1,500 tons of dangerous mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground are expected to be destroyed by a method favored by residents: boiled and mixed with sludge until the blister agent turns into a byproduct less toxic than beer.

Army officials are backing this process, known as neutralization-biodegradation, over an incineration option they favor. But Aberdeen-area residents fear incineration poses long-term health and safety risks.

"It's the Army's position to neutralize and biodegrade," said Mickey Morales, a spokesman for Aberdeen's stockpile disposal program. "The Army has settled on this process and stopped the funding for incineration."

Morales said a team of Army officials endorsed the process, with final approval expected within the next week by Paul G. Kaminski, an undersecretary of defense. Army officials could not be reached for comment last night.

The proposal calls for the destruction of only those chemical agents already stored at Aberdeen. No other agents would be shipped in from other facilities.

Meanwhile, these same Army officials also have scrapped plans to incinerate tons of nerve agent stored at a depot in Newport, Ind., backing a different neutralization process that will turn the resulting effluent into mineralized salts, Morales said.

Destruction of the aging chemical stockpile at Aberdeen is still years away. After securing the necessary state and federal permits and completing an environmental impact statement, plans call for a series of buildings -- in which the mustard agent will be destroyed -- to be constructed at a remote site near the Bush River.

Building to start in 1999

Morales said construction of the buildings, totaling 130,000 square feet, would begin in 1999 and reach completion in 2002. )) A yearlong pilot project would then begin and all the mustard agent would be destroyed by 2004.

Under the process, 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.

In September, a National Research Council scientific panel endorsed the neutralization-biodegradation process. The 14-member panel decided after evaluating five technologies that could be alternatives to incineration.

"Only neutralization technologies have been tested on a large scale to destroy chemical agents," said Richard Magee, executive director of the Center for Environmental Engineering and Science at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, who chaired the panel. "The processes are simple and safe and the systems also meet the technology criteria expressed by citizens in the surrounding communities."

"Neutralization seems to be a simple process that a lot of people can understand," said John E. Nunn III, chairman of a citizens' advisory commission on chemical weapons disposal, after that announcement. Nunn's panel has recommended since 1993 that the Army pursue the neutralization technique, which he said results in an end product "five times less toxic than beer."

Orders from Congress

Although the Army says incineration is a safe method to destroy the chemical weapons at Aberdeen and seven other sites around the country, Congress ordered the Pentagon to look into alternative technologies to destroy the stockpile -- some dating to World War I -- by a 2004 deadline.

Alternative methods of destruction also are being considered for chemical weapons facilities in Colorado and Kentucky. But those stockpiles stored at facilities in Alabama, Oregon and Arkansas are all slated to be destroyed by incineration.

So far, the Army has begun some incineration of chemical agents and weapons at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and Tooele, Utah. These facilities have disposed more than 2 million pounds of chemical warfare agents through incineration, according to the Army.

But last month, a former top executive at the Tooele plant said the Army incinerator was riddled with safety defects and was operated by managers who were not qualified to recognize those risks.

The Army said it was beginning a safety evaluation of the plant and Utah officials said they would look into the allegations.

Days after the Tooele facility began operating in August, the Army was forced to shut down the plant after nerve agent was detected in portions of the plant's ventilation system that were supposed to be free of poison gas. Army officials later said that a seal on a ventilation purification chamber needed to be improved but no nerve gas had escaped into the environment.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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