In response to continued security concerns after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Aberdeen Proving Ground officials said yesterday the installation plans to build reinforced "igloos" to store 1,815 canisters of mustard agent that are kept in an open yard in the Edgewood area.
The igloos, which will cost about $9 million and take eight months to build, will be made of corrugated steel covered with earth, said Maj. William P. Huber, commander of Edgewood Chemical Activity, the proving ground organization responsible for storing the agent.
"I'm not going into any intelligence reports, but we believe the measures that we're taking now are prudent security measures in response to Sept. 11," Huber said.
Harford County residents and officials were pleased with the plans to move the mustard agent, a banned, carcinogenic chemical weapon that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs and has been stored in the same place since World War II.
"I think it's an excellent idea," said Glenda Bowling, vice president of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, a local watchdog group. "It should have been done a long time ago. We've had concerns all along about the way it's currently stored."
Bowling said community worries about the chemical storage yard were heightened by the terrorist attacks three months ago today. "People have been a lot more aware of it," she said. "It's extremely important to get this done and get it done right."
County Executive James M. Harkins said he was briefed on the project yesterday afternoon by installation spokesman George Mercer.
"It's a good thing after the events of 9-11," Harkins said. "I think it should give all our residents an added feeling of comfort that the Army is being proactive."
Ernest Crist, manager of emergency services for Harford County, said though the project is designed to enhance security, the county and proving ground will continue to conduct regular drills to anticipate "worst-case scenarios."
"The one thing that [the project] will do is make the likelihood of the worst-case scenario that much less probable," he said. "In that regard, I think it's a good step."
Huber said that security measures prevented him from providing details about the project, which is set to begin this month.
Bechtel National Inc., a contractor building a plant on the Edgewood peninsula to neutralize the agent, will build the igloos. They will be placed in the area where the agent is stored, requiring canisters to be moved "very, very short distances," said Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for Edgewood Chemical Activity.
The canisters, which contain 1,621 tons of mustard agent, have been moved in the past without incident, Huber said, adding: "We have an established procedure for this type of operation."
The concept originated with APG's parent command, the Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, and was approved by the Department of the Army.
"The plan has been under consideration for approximately two months," Huber said.
The $9 million will come from $40 million in antiterrorism funding approved by Congress shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington, Huber said.
The proving ground houses about 5 percent of the nation's chemical stockpile. The stockpile at the proving ground does not contain explosive weapons.
The other storage sites are Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky; Anniston Army Depot in Alabama; Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas; Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado; Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon; Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah; and Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana.
Neutralization of the mustard agent is to begin in 2004, DeWeese said, and be completed by 2006.