APG officials postpone detonation of munitions

March 28, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Prompted by concerns from area residents, officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground have postponed the scheduled detonation of hundreds of pounds of munitions -- including some containing chemical agents.

Army officials had planned to blow up 14 chemical rounds and 112 nonchemical rounds at the Edgewood area of APG from Tuesday to mid-May, and planned to announce it through an advertising blitz.

But after word got out early and prompted an outcry, base officials began organizing a meeting with elected officials to discuss educating residents in nearby communities in Harford, Cecil, Kent and Baltimore counties about the detonation.

"Maj. Gen. John Longhauser [post commander at APG] feels as though we should take time to educate the public," said Rachel McDonald, an APG spokeswoman. "We have gotten a fair number of calls from people concerned about the process."

The detonation would entail using 5 pounds of explosives for every pound of munitions, which would result in a fireball reaching temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. McDonald said that the extreme heat would break down the chemicals into several nontoxic components and that officials were trying to keep the sound of the explosions at a noise level under 120 decibels.

McDonald said an emergency permit had been issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment to destroy the rounds -- some of which date to the 1920s -- after it was discovered they were disintegrating because of age.

"They have been stored in a bunker for years and only recently has technology enabled us to look inside and discover which were filled with chemical agents and which weren't," McDonald said. "Some of the concern, I believe, stems from the fact that people hear the term 'emergency permit' and believe that there is a danger.

"Whenever chemicals are involved, an emergency permit is applied for, and there is no danger that these rounds are going to spontaneously detonate right away."

But representatives of citizen groups worried that the project was shrouded in secrecy and that Army officials were proceeding without the input of residents.

In recent months, citizen groups and the Army had settled a long-standing dispute over the disposal of mustard agent, and some residents saw the latest project as another breakdown in communication.

"From the beginning we have supported the disposal of the chemical weapons in a responsible manner," said Jane E. Hukill, chairwoman of the Coalition for Safe Disposal of Chemical Weapons. "When the Army appears to be going about things in a cavalier way, that is when we have concerns."

She said residents learned of the planned detonations last month when they called the base to complain about blasts and were told incorrectly that chemicals were being destroyed.

Officials later said those blasts were not related to the stored munitions.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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