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Army researchers think they might have finally solved a 50-year-old puzzle: how to dispose of tons of toxic mustard gas stored at eight U.S. chemical-weapons stockpiles including some in Utah.

Scientists at the Aberdeen Proving Ground are testing a combination of hot water and sewage sludge containing common bacteria that feed on the mustard gas for up to 10 days, producing byproducts that are considered safe.The Aberdeen research, involving 200 government and private scientists and costing $45 million, is being watched worldwide as nations look for environmentally acceptable ways of getting rid of chemical weapons.

If proved on a larger scale, the process could be used to destroy 1,500 tons of 50-year-old mustard agent stored at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, as well as stockpiles in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and Utah, the researchers said.

"We did not have to grow some unique, esoteric bacteria,"said Lt. Col. Steven M. Landry, a chemical engineer who is helping manage the research.

The researchers' findings are to be discussed Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington. Advocates are expected to propose that a large portion of the Army's $700 million fiscal 1996 budget for chemical weapons disposal go toward accelerating the neutralization research.

The Army has insisted for years there is no reliable way other than incineration to destroy the 30,000-ton U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons, especially one that could meet a congressional deadline of 2005.

Mustard agent, first used in battle during World War I, is a carcinogen that also blisters the skin and burns the respiratory system. Incineration opponents say it would be foolish to burn the chemical at Aberdeen, which borders the Chesapeake Bay and is surrounded by 300,000 people within a 15-mile radius.

The neutralization research is lending proof to the argument that building huge incinerators will be too expensive and dangerous, said John Nunn, co-chairman of theMaryland Citizens Advisory Commission for Chemical Weapons Demilitarization.

"It's pretty amazing," Nunn said. "Flush for Aberdeen!"

Although the Army said it had not yet estimated the cost of neutralizing Aberdeen's mustard agent, scientists say that the hot water-sewage sludge method has the potential to be a low-cost process.

Aberdeen scientists also have had success neutralizing the nerve agent VX in room-temperature water, with the aim of destroying a 1,200-ton stockpile of the deadly chemical at the Army base in Newport, Ind., researchers said.

So far, the neutralization has been tested using as much as a pint of mustard agent. Researchers soon will begin using as much as 25 gallons of the chemical, Landry said.

By July 1996, the Pentagon is expected to decide whether to build a larger pilot plant, either at Aberdeen or the Tooele Army Depot near Salt Lake City.