Whittling away at weapons stockpile

Ky. visitors tour chemical process at Aberdeen site

February 10, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Two surprises awaited the group of Kentucky residents that visited an Aberdeen Proving Ground laboratory to watch workers neutralize toxic mustard agent: They didn't have to wear a gas mask, but they couldn't chew gum.

Group members, who live near Blue Grass Army Depot, were at the Harford County military installation for three days last week to meet with representatives from Defense Department programs that oversee the nation's chemical stockpiles and see demonstrations of how those weapons can be destroyed.

The Army's accelerated program to neutralize 1,621 tons of mustard agent at APG is well under way. But Kentucky residents are waiting to hear how the Defense Department plans to destroy old chemical munitions at Blue Grass. The decision is due in July.

After watching on a closed-circuit television as chemical plant operator George Roberts added the carcinogenic agent to a beaker of steaming water, the visitors stepped into the room to watch a magnetic stick inside the beaker whip the inky mustard into a mini-cyclone, breaking down the agent.

"If you want to come a little closer, it's quite all right," said Roberts, who was wearing a standard lab coat and green rubber gloves.

Most of the 10-person delegation -- which included town officials, grass-roots activists and members of a citizens advisory commission -- laughed nervously as Roberts explained that the powerful vented hood over the work area prevented fumes from escaping into the room.

"Why did we have to spit out our gum?" asked Amy Conner, who works in public affairs at Blue Grass. The answer: Some gum, especially Juicy Fruit, smells like chemical warfare agents.

Blue Grass is one of eight U.S. stockpile sites and contains less than 2 percent of the Army's total chemicals weapons store. But it holds a lethal mix of rockets, projectiles, mustard agent and the deadly nerve agents GB and VX.

"We'd like to get rid of it as quickly as you folks," said Dr. Douglas Hindman, co-chairman of the Kentucky Citizens Advisory Commission, as he watched the television outside the lab. The Army says it could be at least 2012 before Blue Grass' stockpile is gone, well after a 2007 international treaty deadline for destroying the materials.

APG is home to three programs that oversee chemical weapon stockpiles: the Soldier and Biological Chemical Command, which maintains the stockpiles; the Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, or PMCD, which handles destruction; and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment, or ACWA, charged by Congress with studying the stockpiles at Blue Grass and Pueblo, Colo., and offering alternatives to incineration, which many residents oppose.

The Defense Department is studying several technologies to destroy the Blue Grass stockpile, including incineration; supercritical water oxidation, using highly pressurized, 700-degree water; and an electrochemical process using silver nitrate. An environmental impact statement detailing the methods is expected to be released at the end of the month.

PMCD oversees incineration at the nation's largest stockpile in Tooele, Utah. Other sites building furnaces are Umatilla, Ore.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Anniston, Ala. Neutralization will be used in Newport, Ind., which has VX in bulk canisters. Pueblo's destruction method is to be announced in the spring.

Group members say they would like to know what PMCD has learned from the Tooele incinerator, which has had problems, including a release of trace amounts of nerve agent into the atmosphere.

They also want to know how the Army will revise incineration destruction schedules -- found last year to be overly optimistic -- so that Blue Grass projections are valid. And they want to know when ACWA will present more details on how alternative destruction technologies will work on a large scale.

Army officials say the citizens advisory commission will have tremendous influence in determining which destruction technology the Defense Department chooses. Some of the members are newcomers to the issue; others, like Hindman, have been involved from the start, more than a decade ago.

He said the toughest thing, as the decision nears, is getting residents reinvigorated. Ten years ago, he said, a thousand people would turn out for meetings to discuss the stockpile; today, the numbers have fallen substantially.

"If we are a community together, that makes it easier all around," Hindman said. But not everyone is unified around one destruction method -- for some, it's seeing results that matters.

"I don't think they care what technology comes, but they want to get going," he said. "It's been entirely too long."

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