Bush plan lacks funds for APG project

Disposal of chemical by year's end unlikely

March 29, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Funding to accelerate the disposal of the mustard agent stockpile at Aberdeen Proving Ground is not in the Bush administration's latest spending request, potentially delaying the project's completion by six to nine months.

Out of concern that APG's 1,621-ton stockpile of the chemical weapon could be targeted by terrorists, the Army announced with much fanfare in January that it would dispose of the mustard agent by the end of this year - three years ahead of schedule. But the plan hinged on a $96 million supplemental appropriation that now appears unlikely.

The fiscal 2003 budget is expected to include enough money to pay for the remainder of the project, but that money won't be available until October, said Joseph W. Loverich, Army site project manager at the Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. Without funding until then, the completion date for disposal of the mustard agent would be pushed back to summer or fall 2003, he said.

"In wartime, tough decisions have to be made at the highest levels," Loverich said. "There are some huge bills that have to be paid to fund the war and homeland security, and those bills have to be paid first."

President Bush sent the appropriation request to Congress on March 21, but Congress has not acted on it. Congress can add money to the bill, and Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski vowed yesterday to try.

"I was pleased that the Army responded to the events of Sept. 11 by coming up with a plan to eliminate mustard agent by the end of this year, but I am extremely disappointed that the administration failed to come up with the funding to implement that plan," she said.

"This money is crucial to keep Aberdeen Proving Ground's mustard agent disposal project on track," Mikulski added. "I secured funding for this project in the past, and I will fight again this year to make sure APG has the resources they need to destroy the mustard agent in a safe and environmentally sound way."

Mustard agent, a banned chemical weapon and known carcinogen, has been stored at APG's Edgewood area since World War II. The Army had planned to build an automated facility to drain the 1,815 containers of the molasses-like substance and prepare them to be recycled in one step. Under the new procedure, the containers will be drained and rinsed by workers and recycled later, a change that cuts months and millions of dollars off the plan.

The Army began construction of its disposal facility last month, but Loverich said that the work would be slowed without additional funding. The Army would also put off hiring workers to neutralize the mustard agent, a process that uses hot water to break down the substance.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins' spokeswoman, Merrie Street, said the county had been informed of the delay but wasn't concerned by it.

"The community had been living under a three-year timetable, then it was cut to a one-year timetable and now it looks like maybe a year-and-a-half timetable, so it's still a win for the community," she said. "We can all hope the Congress includes some money or the Army finds funding somewhere else, but worst-case scenario, we're still speeding up the whole event."

John Nunn, who is co-chairman of the Maryland Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission and lives in Kent County, said that although the process will still be completed earlier than originally planned, a delay would be a blow to public trust in the Army.

"The question is whether the Secretary of the Army is going to really assign the priority to Aberdeen that he said to this community and to the [Maryland] Department of the Environment," Nunn said. "They have to make some hard decisions, but they can fund this program if they want to."

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