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Groups hail mustard agent plan

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Environmentalists are hailing the Army's decision to speed up chemical demilitarization of a mustard agent stockpile in Maryland, saying it shows that a method other than incineration would work for the agent stored in Utah.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Army's demilitarization program says officials will watch the process in Maryland to see if officials should change present plans to burn Utah's stockpile of mustard agent.

So far, the $1 billion incinerator near Stockton, Tooele County, has only burned weapons and one-ton storage containers that were filled with GB (sarin) nerve agent. The GB campaign is nearly over, with the last of the regular GB nerve agent projectiles destroyed on Thursday.

Yet to come are 130 explosive and 475 nonexplosive 155-mm. projectiles of sarin that require special processing. When all 12 million pounds of sarin are gone, the incinerator will begin destroying the stockpile's 2.7 million pounds of VX nerve agent.

The nearly 12.4 million pounds of mustard agent would be burned later, according to present plans.

On Dec. 21, 2001, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences endorsed a proposal to speed up demilitarization of mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Edgewood, Md. According to an Army document, more than 3.2 million pounds of mustard agent is stored at Aberdeen.

All of the mustard agent at the proving ground would be disposed of by the fall of 2002 instead of two or three years later.

The "expedited disposal" idea calls for rinsing out the one-ton storage containers and neutralizing the mustard agent chemically. The Army has two pilot programs to evaluate the process.

The panel "supports the Army's proposed concept for expediting the disposal of mustard agent at Aberdeen," says a letter from the committee.

The technique has been "essentially proven from existing data and there appears to be little likelihood that the mustard agent will not be neutralized."

Craig Williams of Chemical Weapons Working Group — an environmental organization based in Berea, Ky., which is critical of incineration as the disposal method — congratulated the Army for the new plan.

"If the mustard agent in Maryland can be destroyed in a safe, expeditious, citizen-supported manner, why not all other sites?" Williams said.

The modification to the process was not a change from incineration to a chemical method of destroying the agent. The change would reduce construction in a procedure involving chemical neutralization.

"There were certainly citizens in that area (Edgewood) who were concerned about the idea of having an incinerator, so that was quickly taken off the table," said Jason Groenewold, director of the Utah activist group Families Against Incinerator Risk.

Still, he maintains, the panel's review "shows there's a much safer, more efficient way to dispose of mustard agent than through incineration."

Marilyn Tischbin Daughdrill, chief of the program manager's public outreach office, said the proposed changes would speed up destruction of the mustard agent.

All Aberdeen's one-ton containers of the deadly agent are stored outdoors. "Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Army did immediately begin assessing and taking a look at its storage, to see what could be done to enhance the security and safety," she said.

The risk of a terror attack prompted the speed-up proposal.

Many environmentalists question the safety of incineration. Could planning change so that the Utah stockpile of mustard agent is neutralized rather than burned?

"The Army is continuing to evaluate concepts, proposals to mitigate the risks stored at all the stockpiles," she said. "This type of concept the Army is continuing to evaluate."

One difference between the mustard agent stockpile at Aberdeen and that in Tooele County is that the Maryland agent is in storage tanks while much of the Utah stockpile is in projectiles and mortars. Presumably, a weapon loaded with explosives would be much more difficult to drain safely.

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com