APG arms disposal delay angers activists

Budget fight in Congress threatens funding for mustard agent destruction

August 25, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Community activists impatient for disposal of chemical weapons stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground are angry about a budget fight between the Army and Congress that could delay the project at least seven months.

"The risk is still there, regardless of the games everyone is playing," said John E. Nunn III, co-chair of a citizens advisory commission on chemical weapons disposal. "There's a real power struggle going on, and we're suffering because of it."

Defense officials announced this week that construction of a 30-acre, $500 million facility to destroy a mustard agent stockpile at APG's Edgewood area will be delayed because of millions of dollars cut from a national program.

Congress made the cuts -- which translated into $13.1 million at APG -- because of what some members have called lax financial management by the Army in its chemical weapons disposal program.

At Edgewood, officials say that means delaying a neutralization facility that would use hot water and bacteria to destroy 1,817 steel containers that hold more than 1,500 tons of mustard agent, a banned chemical weapon and carcinogen that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs.

The facility was due to open by 2003, and the mustard agent was to be destroyed by 2005.

Supporters of the project complained yesterday that the Army is using the threat of a delay to pressure Congress for funding rather than rework the budget to continue the project.

Army officials deny that, saying they are eager to complete disposal of the weapons to comply with the Chemicals Weapons Convention, an international treaty that calls for the destruction of all such weapons by 2007.

"Without the funding, we can't do the project," said Mickey Morales, a spokesman for the Army's Office of the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization. "We want to destroy those weapons as soon as possible, not just from a treaty standpoint, but also for the safety of the community."

Military officials say a delay endangers nearby communities as chemical weapons containers decay, increasing the risk of leaks.

Those living in the shadow of APG -- where there has never been a leak -- said a delay poses less of a risk there than at other storage sites around the country. They say mustard agent is stored in sturdy, steel containers in a carefully monitored area away from residential communities.

Still, the possibility of delay is disappointing to those who want the weapons destroyed, said Del. B. Daniel Riley, a Harford County Democrat and member of the citizens advisory commission who lives next to the Edgewood entrance.

"It's like walking down the aisle to get married and the preacher saying we have to stop the service because we ran out of money," said Riley.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, a Republican, said yesterday that he has faith that Maryland's congressional delegation will work with the Pentagon to reverse the budget cuts. U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, are among a dozen senators urging that the funds be restored.

"The Army worked with the community to come up with a reasonable solution to what is a pretty serious problem," Harkins said. "The community is concerned about the `what ifs,' and we believe that it should move on in a timely manner."

Kathy DeWeese, a spokeswoman for the Edgewood Chemical Activity, said the site is being prepared for the facility. And George Englesson, co-chair of the citizens advisory commission, said he believes Army officials will find a way to finish construction on time.

Pub Date: 8/25/99

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