Army sets public meetings on mustard agent

APG to begin destroying stored chemical March 3

January 19, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The Army will meet with residents of Harford and Kent counties this week to update them on its plans to begin destruction March 3 of a chemical warfare agent that has been stockpiled at Aberdeen Proving Ground since World War II.

The 1,621 tons of mustard agent -- a banned, carcinogenic liquid that blisters the eyes, skin and lungs -- will be destroyed two years ahead of its original schedule, said Kevin J. Flamm, project manager for alternative technologies and approaches in APG's Office of the Project Manager for Chemical Demilitarization.

"That is unprecedented in the chemical demilitarization program," he said.

Army officials will meet with Harford residents at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Edgewood Senior Center, 1000 Gateway Drive in Edgewood, and with Kent residents at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Chestertown Middle School, 402 Campus Ave. in Chestertown.

The Army accelerated plans to destroy its eight stockpiles of chemical agents and munitions after Sept. 11 raised the specter of a terrorist attack at the sites.

"We're satisfied that they're taking the steps necessary to speed up the destruction and ensure the public's safety at the same time," said John Nunn, a Kent County resident who is co-chairman of the Maryland Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission, which has been closely involved with the destruction project. "I don't think they're taking shortcuts."

The mustard agent is stored in steel canisters, many of which have been moved to protective bunkers, in an open storage yard in the Edgewood area of the proving ground. The agent freezes at 51 degrees and is normally in a thick, molasses-like state.

"Everybody thinks about it as a gas permeating everything, but it's a liquid," Nunn said.

To deviate from its original destruction plan, adopted in the late 1990s, the Army has worked closely with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Getting rid of the 1,815 canisters involves a three-step process: opening, draining and cleaning the containers; neutralizing the mustard agent; and treating the byproduct of the neutralization process.

APG is the first military site in the country to destroy the agent by neutralization, a method that agitates the mustard agent in a bath of hot water and caustic solution.

The byproduct of that process, called hydrolysate, comprises mainly water and thiodi- glycol, an industrial chemical, as well as traces of volatile organic compounds. The hydrolysate will be shipped off-site for treatment using bacterial sludge at DuPont's Chamber Works plant in Deepwater, N.J.

Workers, hired by project contractor Bechtel Aberdeen, have undergone classroom and hands-on training to learn about mustard agent and how to work with it safely, Flamm said, adding that he expected workers to begin trial runs soon, using agent simulants in the plant to test the equipment -- and themselves.

Workers, who wear protective clothing and breathing gear, will be in closest proximity to the agent during two stages: first, when they are using "glove boxes" -- steel and Plexiglas boxes equipped with gloved openings and air filters -- to drain the agent from the steel canisters; and second, when samples of the byproduct are taken at the end of the neutralization process to ensure that no mustard agent remains.

For information about public meetings, call the Edgewood Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office, 410-676-6800.

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