Construction to begin on building for disposal of APG mustard agent

Officials say project may be finished this year

February 04, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Work is set to begin today on the Army's accelerated mustard agent disposal program at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a $200 million project that is expected to rid the installation of the banned chemical weapon by the end of the year.

Defense Department approval for a smaller disposal building than the project originally called for arrived last week. Construction is expected to start today.

The approval occurred two weeks later than expected, but the project manager said he's optimistic the Army can meet its goal of destroying the 1,621 tons of mustard agent - which blisters the eyes, skin and lungs - nearly three years ahead of schedule.

"I'm confident we'll be able ... finish in December," said Kevin J. Flamm, project manager for alternative technologies and approaches in APG's Office of the Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization.

Undersecretary of Defense E.C. Aldridge Jr. signed the approval letter - called an acquisition decision memorandum, or ADM - Friday, after 15 to 20 offices in the State and Defense departments signed off on the project. Flamm said that many offices cut their review time, allowing the approval process, which can take 12 to 18 months, to be completed in weeks.

Spurred by a continued threat of terrorism, the Army announced last month it would destroy the mustard agent three years ahead of schedule by scaling down the size of the building where the work will be performed, streamlining the destruction process and shipping the byproduct to a commercial waste handler.

The mustard agent is stored in 1,815 canisters that have been kept in an open yard at Aberdeen Proving Ground since World War II. The agent will be destroyed through neutralization, a process that uses hot water to break down the toxic, molasses-like substance. The byproduct is then treated to render it harmless.

The neutralization process remains unchanged under the revised disposal plan. But the plant, which was to have been fully automated, will now employ workers to open and drain the canisters.

Also, instead of preparing canisters for recycling after they're opened, workers will return them to the stockpile. Once all the agent at the proving ground is destroyed, recycling will begin.

Bechtel Aberdeen, the project contractor, was not idle while proving ground officials waited for final approval for the new building, Flamm said. Workers did as much preparation as possible, he said, such as marking where neutralization reactors and other disposal equipment will go in the facility.

Bechtel could not complete contract negotiations with a waste handler until the project was approved at the Pentagon, Flamm said, adding that he expects a company to be chosen by the end of the month.

Last month, the Maryland Department of the Environment approved the first of two consent agreements, allowing construction of the building to proceed. But a second critical agreement - approving the accelerated process - will not come for several months.

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