At APG, odd recipe to destroy mustard

Scientists, team mix activism, politics with toxic agent process

February 05, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

In the early 1990s, Aberdeen Proving Ground scientists Steve Harvey and Yu Chu Yang were researching how to defend soldiers from chemical attacks when the Army asked them to refocus their energies. What would be the best way, the Army wanted to know, for the United States to destroy its stockpile of toxic weapons?

Finding an answer immersed Harvey and Yang, members of an alternative technologies team of nearly a dozen APG researchers and engineers, in a volatile mix of science, activism and politics. The result was the discovery of a process that APG will use this year to destroy more than 1,600 tons of mustard agent stored at the base since World War II.

"A lot of dedicated people put their hearts into that effort for the public good," recalls Harvey, who, like Yang, still works at APG.

"It was exciting and enjoyable," Yang says. "Scientists like to see their research applied."

But it was stressful, too.

Under pressure from Congress and an international treaty to dispose of its banned chemical arsenal, the Army in the early 1990s planned to burn the materiel, including 1,621 tons of mustard agent at the Harford County base.

But people living near Aberdeen and the nation's seven other stockpile sites were outraged. Kent County residents, who would be downwind of an APG incinerator, donned gas masks and demonstrated in the streets.

Protests by community activists across the country compelled Congress to press the Army for alternatives in disposing of the chemical weapons stockpile.

"If it weren't for the public - especially if it weren't for their pressure - I don't think the Army would have developed the program," says Mickey Morales, who was spokesman for the alternative technologies program and now works with APG's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command.

In Maryland, a citizens advisory commission favored a disposal method called neutralization, in which the agent is mixed with another substance to spark a chemical reaction that breaks down the mustard.

Harvey and Yang were both experts on mustard, the blistering agent stockpiled in Maryland, and VX, a more lethal nerve agent stored in Newport, Ind.

Harvey, who came to APG in 1989, is a research biologist who lives in Fallston. Born in Baltimore in 1957, he graduated from Towson High and Towson State University and earned his doctorate in genetics from Penn State.

Yang, who joined the APG staff in 1986, is a research chemist and Bel Air resident. She was born in China in 1947, grew up in Taiwan and earned her doctorate in physical chemistry from Tulane University in New Orleans.

They and their colleagues were charged with finding a safe, cost-effective disposal method - before treaty and congressional deadlines forced the Army to begin incineration.

"I think they both did excellent work, but they certainly weren't alone," says retired Lt. Col. Steven Landry, who oversaw the alternative technologies program from 1994 to 1997.

"Steve [Harvey] was the guy that really did the bench-scale chemistry and biology that resulted in the Aberdeen process. But he required an awful lot of support. Dr. Yang did the same thing for the Newport process."

Yang and Harvey just smile and shrug while recalling the sometimes high-pitched atmosphere, especially from 1994 to 1996, when their team received funding to devise a neutralization plan and a design for the neutralization plant - simultaneously.

"It did force you to focus, to put a date on a wall on a chart and not slip it," Landry said. "We could not allow technical decisions to slide because everything else would slide."

The alternative technologies team worked long days and weekends, winnowing the dozens of alternatives for neutralizing the mustard, Landry says. Early on, scientists realized they could not use the same process to treat mustard and VX, so they had to develop separate technologies.

Private industry had been invited to submit destruction proposals, too. Among the ideas: using molten metal, gas or electricity to break the agents down.

Team members also had to meet with regulators and residents. As meetings neared, it often took all night to prepare.

Yang recalls, in the midst of her research, flying to Indiana one morning, driving to Newport and talking with residents late into the night.

Morales, who accompanied Yang on that trip, likened the time to the World War II-era Manhattan Project, when a handful of researchers created the atomic bomb. "It was very stressful, but it was very thrilling," Morales said. "We had two years to come up with something different."

Disposing of the mustard would involve two steps - neutralizing it and treating the leftover material. Finding the right balance between the steps was tricky; a process breaking down the mustard might work well but leave a byproduct too difficult to treat.

Yang and Harvey were using water in the neutralizations, but hadn't considered making it the process' main component.

"We sort of stumbled on that," Harvey says.

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