Mustard agent timetable a concern

APG neighbors fear accelerated disposal could threaten safety

January 11, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County residents, reacting to news of the Army's accelerated schedule for disposal of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground, worried yesterday about whether the new timetable would compromise the project's safety. Some said they would take their concerns to a public meeting with military officials next week.

On Wednesday, the Army announced it would destroy the 1,621-ton stockpile of mustard agent - which has been stored in containers in an open yard at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood area since World War II - by the end of this year, more than three years ahead of schedule. Mustard agent is an oily liquid that burns the skin and lungs and is known to cause cancer.

"To suddenly go from a four-year process to an 11-month process increases the risks," said Arlen Crabb, who lives near Edgewood and is president of a local residents group that monitors the installation's Superfund cleanup projects.

"I'm glad the mustard is going to be disposed of three years earlier than was projected - that's wonderful - but I'm very deeply concerned about the future use of the area," said Harford state Del. B. Daniel Riley, a member of the Maryland Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission, which is working closely with APG on the mustard agent disposal project.

The group fears the buildings where the chemical-warfare agent will be neutralized in a hot-water process could be reused as a hazardous waste disposal site, Riley said.

County Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, who represents Edgewood, said she's been given little information on the new disposal schedule. "One of the things that bothers me greatly is I've had no communication from APG," she said. "I need details myself about how they intend to speed things up."

Some Edgewood residents were taking the Army news in stride yesterday. At David's Barber Shop, Sherman Buchanan, a retired postal worker from Glen Burnie who has cut hair for about five years, said: "Doesn't bother me a bit. They've got so many experienced people down there, it's really not a problem."

Maria Waller, an Edgewood native who works at Mama Maria's Restaurant and Carry Out, said she learned about existence of the mustard agent stockpile only recently. "If it's been here all this time and hasn't affected me, why am I worrying about it now?" she said.

At JoMomma's Steak and Seafood on Old Edgewood Road, owner Jeff Gordon couldn't get any closer to the installation: It's a few hundred feet away, across the MARC railroad tracks. When he opened his jazz-themed restaurant in May 2000, he knew little about his new neighbor.

"I had no idea there was mustard gas over there," he said. "I knew there were munitions. Some of the guys working there [at APG] told us."

Gordon, who lives in Bel Air, said he gets regular safety briefings from the Army and tries not to dwell on the presence of the stockpile. "You're hoping the government's handling it in a proper fashion, an intelligent fashion," he said, "but it's definitely a concern."

Crabb, president of the APG Superfund Citizens Coalition, said he learned of the Army's plans in an e-mail sent by the installation's public affairs office.

"My thought was, `If you can get rid of it in 11 months now, why couldn't you get rid of it in 11 months five or six years ago?'" he said. "They are taking some shortcuts. I personally, as a citizen, am not comfortable with it."

Crabb said he would take his questions to a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Edgewood Senior Center on Gateway Drive.

Riley said the citizens demilitarization commission wants written assurances that the treatment facility will be decontaminated and dismantled when the mustard project is completed.

Joseph W. Lovrich, APG's site project manager for the Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, said yesterday that the Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, which oversees APG, is looking at future uses for the office, fire, utility and maintenance buildings at the project site.

But one thing would happen, Lovrich said. "The neutralization equipment will be decontaminated and taken out," he said.

John Nunn, who works with Riley on the citizens commission, said he's heard the buildings could be used for a proposed anti-terrorism school.

"I have no objection to that, but let's get it on paper," Nunn said. "We don't want to create another problem for another generation."

For information on Wednesday's public meeting at the Edgewood Senior Center, or a second meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Chestertown Middle School, Kent County, call 410-676-6800.

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