Chemical threat becomes a part of town's life

Edgewood residents trained as Army works to neutralize supply

`Billion-to-one' chance

January 18, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Edgewood High School Principal Stephen R. Williams throws the intercom switch and commands everyone's attention with three words: "Chemical stockpile emergency."

"Teachers and students, we are going to begin evacuating classrooms," Williams says. "At this time, on the blue route: Rooms 5 and 6, the media center and the computer lab. On our red route, prepare to evacuate Rooms 23 through 30 and Rooms 47 to 52."

Had this been an actual emergency, 1,100 students at Edgewood High would have been instructed to spend up to four hours cocooned in their gymnasium, breathing filtered air and awaiting a break in the toxic cloud drifting from nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Although last week's classroom evacuation was only a test, it was an eye-opener -- even in Edgewood, where residents have grown accustomed to living near the remnants of America's chemical weapons buildup.

"I've been hearing about this mustard gas since I can remember," said Courtney White, a 17-year-old senior at Edgewood High. But last week's drill -- the school's first -- "got my attention," she said.

As the Army moves forward with plans to destroy the proving ground's aging supply of World War II-era mustard agent, for the first time four Edgewood schools are staging responses to a potential chemical accident. Deerfield Elementary pupils and Edgewood elementary, middle and high school students are being herded into gyms or cafeterias that can be sealed from chemical leaks.

At those schools, windows have been caulked and made airtight. Roof-mounted machinery raises the air pressure inside to keep a chemical plume out. Red telephones provide hot lines to emergency operations centers. The federal government paid $1.1 million for the project, completed last summer, officials said.

Edgewood Elementary School Principal Allyn A. Watson, who conducted her school's first drill in November, said she tries to convey the gravity of the exercise without unduly frightening children.

"It's done with more of a safety angle than a scary-mustard-gas angle," she said. But she added, "They must sense that we have a plan, so the kids know what to do when I get on the intercom and say, `This is a Code Green.' "

For generations, the Army post has served as a twin city to Edgewood. Soldiers and scientists leave the base to shop and relax. Over the decades, many from the military have lived in the community.

But residents have long been wary of potential environmental problems at Edgewood Arsenal, as the area was known until merging with Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1971. For decades, it was one of the Army's centers for secret chemical research and a testing ground for chemical weapons.

The base's "Pilot Plant," where scientists produced lethal compounds, was closed in 1986 after chemicals were found to be stored in leaking containers and sulfuric acid drained into a nearby stream. The case prompted a nationwide cleanup of pollution at military facilities.

Military officials plan to clean what's known as the Nike site on Lauderick Creek, a chemical weapons training area near the installation's boundary in Edgewood and the Westwood area, a landfill near the post's border in Joppatowne.

No issue at APG has been more scrutinized than the Army's proposal to dispose of more than 1,500 tons of mustard agent, a banned, carcinogenic chemical weapon that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs.

Faced more than a decade ago with citizen opposition to a proposal to burn the stockpile, military officials agreed to neutralize the agent with hot water and bacteria. Construction began last year on a $600 million automated facility designed to eliminate the mustard agent by 2005.

As part of the cleanup, the military has provided more than $12 million to help the county respond to an emergency, said Doug Richmond, emergency management coordinator for Harford County. The money has been used to widen roads on evacuation routes and build a network of sirens in Edgewood and Joppatowne.

The military has gone to great lengths in Harford County to promote its cleanup. It set up an office in Edgewood's Woodbridge Station shopping center, between a fast-food restaurant and a hair salon. Officials have met with community groups, staffed booths at fairs and at malls, conducted expos at schools and briefed real estate agents.

The military supplied Edgewood Elementary with an activity book, in which mascots Alfred P. Groundhog and Safe T. Squirrel teach pupils how to respond to an emergency.

For prospective homebuyers, Richmond has a standard response: "Do you lie awake at night worrying about a 747 falling out of the sky and crashing only into your house?

"Should you worry about it? No. Should you be concerned and know what to do? Yes," he said.

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