Cutting the mustard at Aberdeen Neutralization: Army now can get on with destroying obsolete chemical weapons.

December 11, 1996

FINALLY, the heated argument over how best to dispose of barrels of mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground and other military posts may be coming to an end.

The U.S. Army is expected to approve a plan to neutralize the mustard agent at Aberdeen's Edgewood post by 2004. After much brain power was devoted to finding a solution, it turns out that mixing mustard with hot water and sludge from the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant, of all things, renders it fairly harmless.

That's good news for the thousands who live in southern Harford County; for environmentalists and scientists who pushed neutralization as safer than incineration, and for the Army, which can get on with ridding itself of tons of a dangerous substance that has the capacity to burn flesh and sear lungs.

Some history: Nicknamed for its yellow-brown color and garlicky smell after the Germans developed it in World War I, barrels of mustard agent have been stored at APG since World War II. No one paid the poison much heed, particularly at the Proving Grounds because it was stored there without any delivery mechanism and was frozen much of the year. The biggest risk was that a plane would crash into the yard, superheat the chemical and send it wafting over Chesapeake Bay.

In 1985, as U.S.-Soviet relations warmed, Congress ordered the destruction of all obsolete chemical weaponry -- by 1994. The Army rushed to comply, but Congress backtracked and made the Army the villain as public alarm grew over the proposed method of burning. Malfunctions at Army incinerators in Utah and the Pacific only exacerbated fears.

Some will say the Army should have heard the warnings years ago. But the military did react to changes in technology, not to mention the political climate, in a relatively short span. Disposing of the mustard stockpile has always been a matter of weighing risks: The risk of doing nothing, for example, outweighed the risks of incineration, at some locations.

At Aberdeen, one of the most populous communities near a mustard agent stockpile in the U.S., neutralization at last offers an option that makes the status quo unacceptable.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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