A normal suburban life, touched by a hint of fear

Threat: Stockpiled chemical weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground exert a quiet, powerful influence on a community.

October 24, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

As Mathilde Hinton unpacks boxes in her new Edgewood home, she can look out the two-story bank of windows in her living room and enjoy the view of autumn trees in her back yard. On the other side of the trees, less than two miles away, is a field pocked with aging chemical weapons at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

She knows that, but she isn't greatly concerned. "I'm not afraid," said Hinton, whose husband works at APG. "I'm just an optimistic person."

In recent weeks, people around the nation have come to fear the threat of chemical and biological weapons. But for many of the 23,378 people who live in the Edgewood area of Harford County, the concern is nothing new. It's a threat some have lived with for decades.

Hinton's home is in the Lord Willoughby's Rest subdivision. While it and other communities along Willoughby Beach Road look like most other suburban neighborhoods, clues signal that something is different: roadside signs displaying an emergency radio frequency, a local 15-siren warning system and schools with air-pressure systems that offer students protection from outside contamination.

Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Area was the home of chemical weapons research, development and testing from 1920 to 1951. Today the legacy of that work includes 1,623 tons of mustard agent stockpiled on the peninsula and a 3.2-mile-long field called Lauderick Creek, where the Army is searching for buried grenades, mortars and rockets that could contain mustard, phosgene and other dangerous agents.

Several years ago, the Army began to work with the county to inform residents about the risks posed by these weapons and how to protect themselves. That combination of knowledge and protection has balanced the risks with a sense of confidence in many residents.

"I, for one, feel more secure," said caterer Ronnie Ching, taking a break from yard work at his Otter Creek Landing home. "I think we're blessed to be next to a military base."

But not all residents feel comfortable living near the proving ground, said B. Daniel Riley, a middle school teacher and Democratic state delegate. He has worked on projects to help educate residents since the 1980s and still runs into many people who know nothing about the chemicals at APG.

"It used to be frustrating, but now I kind of expect it," he said, adding that people often don't think about the installation until an event like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks jolts them into awareness.

One such resident is Donna Elliott, who has lived on Nuttal Avenue with her three children for about a year.

Although she grew up in nearby Joppatowne, she said she has become more aware of APG in the past 18 months, while working as a waitress at JoMomma's restaurant on Edgewood Road.

"It's very, very scary to live here," she said.

Aberdeen Proving Ground tries to reach residents through agencies that use everything from refrigerator magnets to a Mobile Community Office, a converted recreational vehicle that appears at school fairs, service club meetings and other events.

The Army spent more than $1 million about three years ago to outfit the four schools on Willoughby Beach Road that are closest to the installation - Deerfield and Edgewood elementaries, and Edgewood Middle School and Edgewood High School - with air-pressure systems to protect students in the event of a chemical incident.

Deerfield Elementary Principal William D. Gunn has on his conference table a hot line from the Emergency Operations Center in the town of Hickory. If a chemical emergency occurred at APG, he would assemble the students and activate the pressurization system. Increased air pressure in the school's two wings and the gymnasium would prevent outside air from entering the building, and students would remain safe for as long as four hours, he said.

The county's Emergency Operations Center and APG practice responding to chemical and biological incidents several times a year. Police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and hospital workers receive training from APG's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command.

County emergency planner Doug Richmond said the county is lucky to have APG's expertise. "We work very closely. ... Harford County is rated as one of the best in the country in response, proven time and time again."

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