Army to launch disposal plan for mustard agent

Process to be complete by 2005 at Aberdeen

May 09, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The steel tubes lie in stacks, strapped to railroad tracks by cables. Their innocuous appearance offers no hint of their poisonous contents.

Behind barbed wire, and heavily guarded by soldiers and technology, the 1,817 containers at Aberdeen Proving Ground hold more than 1,500 tons of mustard agent, a banned chemical weapon and carcinogen that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs.

Churned out at the Harford County base during two world wars, the mustard agent has sat for years as the government and citizens wrangled over how best to dispose of the toxic chemical.

That's set to change this summer, as workers begin construction of a 30-acre, $500 million facility where automated equipment will dismantle the tubes and neutralize the agent with hot water and bacteria, all without the touch of human hands.

The process is expected to close a deadly chapter in the nation's defense history and offer relief to nearby residents who have battled for more than a decade to be rid of their noxious neighbor.

"It's been a lot of bureaucratic stuff to get through," said Jane E. Hukill, a resident of nearby Kent County and chairwoman of the Maryland-based Coalition for Safe Disposal of Chemical Weapons. "But we are very, very pleased that it is finally happening."

Mustard agent was part of the arsenal of chemical weapons that spread terror on the battlefields of World War I, leading to an international ban on the use, but not production, of such weapons under the Geneva Protocol of 1925.

The last mass production of mustard agent at Edgewood Arsenal -- now APG -- took place in 1950, though small batches are still produced for testing.

In 1984, the Army announced that it would dispose of its 30,000-ton chemical stockpile at APG and in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and Utah.

Initial plans to incinerate it sent shock waves through nearby communities as residents worried about possible contamination from the fumes, despite the Army's insistence that incineration posed no hazard.

"Incineration was considered the safest and most available technology at the time," said Lt. Col. Joseph E. Pecoraro, product manager for Alternative Technologies and Approaches in the Office of the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization. "After the outcry, the Army embarked on extensive research to find other methods."

First produced by the Germans, mustard agent is so named because the burning sensation it causes on the skin is similar to that caused by oil from black mustard seeds and because it smells like ground mustard.

The syrupy agent at APG, which is often incorrectly referred to as mustard gas, blisters the skin and burns the respiratory system. It was the most lethal of the chemical weapons used during World War I.

`711 tons of mustard agent'

Mustard agent was produced at Edgewood Arsenal beginning in May 1918, said Jeffery K. Smart, command historian with the Soldier and Biological Chemical Command.

"There were 711 tons of mustard agent produced here until the end of the war," Smart said. "We were also a shell-filling plant, but none of the shells filled with mustard agent were ever shipped over to the war because the agent was shipped over in bulk and filled there."

In 1931, the Army established the Toxic Gas Yard at Edgewood. The chemical was also produced there during World War II, Smart said.

Left with tons of chemical agents after the wars ended, the Army began dumping chemical weapons into the Atlantic Ocean until public outcry over threats to the environment led the military to cease the program in 1968, Smart said. After that, the mustard agent at Aberdeen remained in tightly guarded containers.

In 1993, Congress passed the National Defense Act, creating citizen commissions to address concerns about planned disposals.

`Turn the tide'

Residents of Harford and nearby Kent County armed themselves with stacks of scientific reports and became experts on stockpiles and disposal methods. They conducted research and lobbied the Pentagon for alternative disposal methods.

"The Army overlooked the neutralization process because they were so focused on incineration," said B. Daniel Riley, a Democratic state delegate from Edgewood who served on the Maryland Citizens' Advisory Commission. "We did a lot of research, and we were able to turn the tide."

John E. Nunn III, co-chairman of the advisory commission, said the group worked closely with state and Army officials, who gradually became more receptive to their suggestions.

"We've got a chance to be the first in the United States to get rid of a stockpile," said Nunn, who recently went to Russia to consult with residents with similar stockpile concerns. "I think we have shown that when the community, Army and state works together, we can rid ourselves of chemical weapons."

Groundbreaking is expected June 26 for the pilot disposal facility, which will have 10 buildings and 450 employees.

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