A cloud of anxiety will be lifted

Aberdeen: Accelerated plan to eliminate stockpiled mustard agent this year is welcome news.

January 17, 2002

FOR more than a half-century, the white canisters of toxic mustard agent have rested in open storage stacks at Eagle Point on Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The Army finally decided five years ago on a plan to destroy these sinister relics of chemical warfare, which can blister the lungs and eyes and cause cancer. The cleanup deadline was to be 2006.

Spurred by fears of terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Army last month abruptly accelerated the timetable to finish the job at the Harford County military base this year.

That is good news for the region and for the Army. The new plan would use workers instead of sophisticated robotics to decontaminate the 1,815 canisters of mustard agent. Working around the clock, a team wearing protective gear can drain and clean 12 canisters daily. Cleaning up by hand, instead of automating the job, wouldn't compromise the safety of the project, the Army says.

Before Sept. 11, federal and state regulators were reluctant to speed up the schedule. The decades-long delay was due to shifting views of the military, of Congress and of the community. Leaving it alone was once thought to be the safest course. Incineration was considered. Now the syrupy, toxic substance will be made harmless: It will be broken down and neutralized in a bath of hot water and sewage treatment bacteria.

Neighbors of Aberdeen Proving Ground worry that the treatment facility later may be used as a regional disposal center for hazardous materials. The future of the site is undetermined. The Army has pledged to decontaminate, dismantle and remove the cleanup equipment at the project's end.

Safe disposal of the internationally banned chemical appears close at hand. That will lift a cloud of concern that for too long has hovered over this region.

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