Meeting explains stockpile removal

Accelerated schedule for APG mustard agent concerns residents

January 17, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County residents filled Edgewood Senior Center last night to hear how the Army plans to destroy Aberdeen Proving Ground's 1,621-ton stockpile of mustard agent more than three years ahead of schedule.

Some in the crowd of about 160 were APG workers living in nearby communities. Others recalled sitting in similar meetings a decade ago when the Army was proposing to incinerate the toxic material.

Noting the risk of terrorism, the Army announced last week that it would speed destruction of the mustard agent, which is about 5 percent of the U.S. military's banned chemical weapons stockpile. Nearly 2,000 canisters of mustard agent - a carcinogenic, molasseslike liquid that burns the skin, eyes and lungs - have been stored on the Edgewood peninsula since World War II.

Donna Hausmann of Joppa, who has lived in the area for two decades, said the Army's post-Sept. 11 concerns are not new to the community.

"It's unfortunate it took [the terrorist attacks] for the Army to realize the potential of the dangers that can take place," she said.

Ken Heselton of Joppatowne expressed concerns that the six plugs sealing each canister might not open because the containers have been sitting in an open storage yard for more than five decades.

"I realize Sept. 11 shook this country, but I don't think it shook those plugs loose," he said to chuckles from the crowd.

Kevin Flamm, project manager for alternative technologies and approaches in the proving ground's Office of the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, responded, "There will be procedures in place."

Residents also worried that the accelerated schedule would compromise safety. But Flamm said the basic destruction process will remain intact, except for changes that will allow the agent to be disposed of more quickly and cheaply.

Under the old plan, an automated system would drain the 1,815 containers and prepare them to be recycled in one step. The new plan calls for draining and rinsing the containers; they would be prepared for recycling later. The change trims months off the process and makes destruction of the agent the top priority.

"The best way to eliminate risk is to eliminate the stockpile," Flamm said.

When another audience member asked how the mustard containers would be moved to be destroyed, Maj. William P. Huber, commander of Edgewood Chemical Activity, said they would be secured in a cradle on a forklift, prompting groans from a few audience members.

Mustard agent is neutralized by mixing it vigorously with hot water in a reactor tank. This process creates a byproduct called hydrolysate, which is about 92 percent water and 8 percent thiodigylcol, a common commercial chemical. The hydrolysate is treated with sewage sludge to break down the thiodigylcol.

The Army says it can save time and money by shipping the hydrolysate to a commercial treatment facility.

Army officials estimate that the proposed changes will shave $200 million off the original $600 million price tag.

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