Preparing an end for poison palace Demolition: The Army prepares to raze a building where scientists developed chemical agents for decades

January 09, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

As the United Nations struggles with Iraq over chemical and biological weapons, the U.S. Army -- in a little-noticed event -- is poised to demolish one of the most prominent symbols of its chemical warfare history: Building E5625 at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

For almost a half-century, in strictly enforced secrecy, scientists at the "Pilot Plant" produced and experimented on an array of lethal compounds.

They worked with mustard agent, a carcinogen that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs, and with an LSD-like substance that causes hallucinations and disorientation.

They even worked with sarin -- the same paralyzing nerve gas used by a Japanese doomsday cult to kill 12 subway passengers and injure 5,000 others in 1995.

Today, though, the empty building looks like any old, decaying structure, as it awaits demolition as part of the International Chemical Weapons Treaty.

"Up until two months ago, the most dangerous thing in the plant was pigeon droppings," said Tim Blades, chief of the Chemical Support Division for the Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center and overseer of the demolition.

"All of that is cleaned up now, and there is nothing left in the building."

The quietly planned demolition of the four-story plant seems an anticlimactic end for a facility that once was the Army's premier site for chemical weapons testing and research.

Built in the early 1940s, it was known as the "Pilot Plant" because of the early-stage research done there on substances that would be put into full-scale production elsewhere.

Initially, the plant's chief mission was to produce a compound that would protect soldiers from mustard agent attacks by preventing the agent from seeping through their uniforms.

Over the years, the plant's mission broadened to include work with hundreds of chemicals -- the evidence of which can be seen in the building, where acids have eaten through a portion of a reinforced concrete ceiling.

The plant also was instrumental in the development of binary weapons, which hold chemicals in separate chambers and mix them into deadly gas in flight. The technology is safer for soldiers handling the weapons.

Over the years, those who worked at the plant did so in secrecy. Workers passed a guard on their way into the plant compound, which included eight other buildings housing administrative offices, storage areas and a changing house for employees.

"It was basically self-sufficient," said Dennis C. Lukens, who worked as a chemical engineer at the plant from 1978 to 1986. "If you needed anything done, you could just set it up and get your work done anywhere in the building."

But the plant came to an undignified end in 1986. The Army shut it down after chemicals were found to be stored in leaking containers, and sulfuric acid made its way into a nearby stream and drainage areas leading to local sewers.

There were no injuries from the leak and no permanent environmental damage. But three plant officials were convicted of illegally storing, treating or dumping hazardous wastes and were sentenced to probation and community service.

The case was an embarrassment for the Pentagon and marked the first time that federal employees were found guilty of routinely breaking environmental laws. It prompted a nationwide cleanup of pollution at military facilities.

Some of those who worked there are reluctant to discuss that episode in the plant's history. Its aftermath pitted local politicians and residents against the Army, with demands that military officials be more open with the community about testing at Aberdeen.

The crumbling building was cleared out in 1990. Drainage areas were filled with concrete, and workers were outfitted with gear to protect them during the extensive removal of equipment.

"It was like the building actually grew stuff overnight," said Jerry Wagner, an industrial equipment maintenance mechanic who worked the plant. "You moved stuff and moved stuff and there was still more stuff to move."

Officials have since conducted extensive air monitoring and soil testing to ensure there are no dangerous levels of contamination. Steel taken from the building has been thermally treated before being sold for scrap.

The plant's final dismantling, scheduled to begin this spring, is sure to be closely monitored by the international weapons community, said Col. Ned Libby, project manager for the Army's Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel.

Under the international treaty, any facility that produced more than 1 metric ton of a regulated compound within a year must be dismantled. Sarin, known as nerve agent GB, was produced at the Pilot Plant in the 1950s, Aberdeen officials said.

Recent clashes between the United Nations and Iraq -- which has resisted allowing inspectors full access to gather information about biological and missile programs -- show that chemical and biological weapons are far from being a historic footnote.

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