Army speeds APG plans

Aberdeen stockpile will be destroyed by end of the year

1,621 tons of mustard agent

Revised schedule draws praise from officials, community

January 10, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Spurred by a lingering terrorist threat, the Army announced yesterday that it will dispose of the 1,621-ton mustard agent stockpile at Aberdeen Proving Ground by the end of this year - more than three years ahead of schedule.

"After September 11, clearly the Army reassessed security measures at the stockpile," said Kevin J. Flamm, project manager for alternative technologies and approaches in APG's Office of the Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization. "The best way to provide permanent security to the community is to destroy the stockpile."

The accelerated schedule will save the Army about $200 million, dropping disposal costs to about $400 million, said Katherine DeWeese, a project spokeswoman.

The mustard agent - a banned, carcinogenic chemical weapon that blisters the skin, eyes and lungs - has been stored at the installation since World War II. Area residents have expressed concern about the stockpile of nearly 2,000 canisters, kept on the Edgewood peninsula.

The accelerated disposal plan was approved last month by Thomas E. White, secretary of the Army. Flamm said White directed APG to work with the state, the Environmental Protection Agency and the community to compress the schedule.

Aberdeen is one of eight stockpile sites in the country and the first to accelerate disposal plans. Flamm said the other sites would be reviewed.

Yesterday, state and local officials said the new timetable was a step in the right direction for the proving ground and the state.

"I'm glad the Army is willing to put the effort into doing it," said Rick Collins, Maryland Department of the Environment's waste management administration director. "I definitely believe there's a significant risk reduction to the citizens of Maryland by eliminating the stockpile in an expedited fashion."

John Nunn, who is co-chairman of the Maryland Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission and lives in Kent County, said, "I give them credit for thinking outside the box to speed up the process. We support the disposal."

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins applauded the decision. "The Army has done a good job of dealing with the details. I feel very confident they're proceeding with a good plan - and that they're using an extreme measure of caution."

Getting rid of the 1,815 canisters involves a three-step process: opening, draining and cleaning the containers; neutralizing the mustard agent; and treating the byproduct of the neutralization process.

To deviate from its original destruction plan, adopted in the late 1990s, the Army worked closely with the state and the EPA. The state Department of the Environment could approve a consent agreement by Jan. 20 to allow the construction of a neutralization center, Collins said.

When work begins this summer, the goal is to have no surprises, said Lee Smith, project manager for Bechtel Aberdeen, the contractor on the disposal project.

"We will have worked through all the possible scenarios and have well-thought-out responses," he said.

The mustard agent, which resembles molasses and has an acrid odor, will be neutralized as planned using a hot-water process called hydrolyzation. But, Flamm said, the Army has streamlined the way the containers will be drained and cleaned, and has opted to hire a commercial waste company to treat the byproduct of neutralization.

The changes would eliminate the need for a large complex of buildings to be built as part of the original destruction plan, Flamm said. The Army will use a much smaller facility, to be built in a storage warehouse and finished in late spring or early summer.

However, the Army will keep its plans to build "igloos," or reinforced bunkers, to store the canisters waiting to be treated, said Maj. William P. Huber, commander of Edgewood Chemical Activity, the proving ground organization responsible for storing the mustard agent.

Under original plans, on-site robotics would have executed each step in the destruction process. The new process will rely on workers.

"We've made some tradeoffs in risks, but we have not compromised safety," Flamm said.

The specially trained workers will probably come from APG and from Bechtel, which can draw on an international pool of workers trained to handle hazardous materials, said Joseph W. Lovrich, site project manager of the Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility at the installation.

When the disposal operation starts, 45 people wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus will work in shifts around the clock. The goal is to process 12 canisters a day.

Workers will be in closest proximity to the agent during two stages: first, when they are using "glove boxes" - steel and Plexiglas boxes equipped with gloved openings and air filters - to drain the agent from the steel canisters; and second, when samples of the byproduct are taken at the end of the neutralization process to ensure that no mustard agent remains.

Mustard agent is neutralized by putting it into a vat-like reactor with hot water and shaking it vigorously. The byproduct is 92 percent water and 8 percent thiodiglycol - a common industrial chemical that makes ink flow smoothly from ball-point pens.

"With the specter of September 11, everyone agreed here that if the opportunity presented itself to remove the agent more quickly, that would be a good thing to do if we could do it safely," said Robert Greaves, chief of the permits branch for EPA's Region 3.

"The process is pretty much the same," he added. "I think we're fine."

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