By Jeannine anderson
WASHINGTON – Community activists and lawmakers are applauding the Pentagon’s plan to get rid of millions of pounds of World War II-era mustard gas at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeastern Maryland.
The Army announced Wednesday it had gotten a green light from the Defense Department to use a new chemical technique to dispose of 1,624 tons of mustard gas that has been stored at Aberdeen since the 1940s.
The original plan was to build an incinerator, but residents in Kent County have long opposed that plan, fearing that emissions would blow across the Chesapeake Bay and pose health risks.
“We’re extremely happy,” said John Nunn, co-chairman of the Maryland Citizens Advisory Commission on Chemical Demilitarization. “What this means to us is that there isn’t going to be an incinerator at Aberdeen.”
The commission had urged the Army to look at chemical neutralization as an alternative to incineration. In September, a National Academy of Sciences panel recommended the chemical procedure, and in December the Army agreed. The Defense Department approval was the final step.
“There’s so much bad press, sometimes, where the Army is concerned,” said Army spokeswoman Kathy DeWeese. “It’s lovely to have a good program that people like and that looks like it will work.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee fought for increased funding for research into the alternative technology, called the decision “a victory for all of us in Maryland.”
“For a long time, the Army rushed towards incineration – without adequately considering other, safer options,” Mikulski said.
Mustard gas, the blistering agent first used in World War I, is not really a gas, but an oily, volatile liquid that looks like molasses.
Millions of pounds of it were manufactured at Aberdeen during World War II, but none was ever used. The mustard agent has been kept in huge steel canisters at the proving ground ever since.
Congress has directed that all of the mustard gas, along with all other chemical weapons stored at Aberdeen and seven other military sites around the country, be destroyed by 2004.
The plan is to build a $100 million plant at Aberdeen where the mustard agent will be drained into tanks of water at about 190 degrees, said Jerry Young, a chemical engineer at Aberdeen who is in charge of the mustard gas destruction program.
Young said the water will neutralize the mustard agent, creating a chemical called thiodiglycol and a small amount of hydrochloric acid.
The acid will be neutralized using sodium hydroxide, leaving a solution of about 97 percent water and 2 percent to 3 percent thiodiglycol, Young said.
That mixture will be put into another tank, where sewage slurry from a wastewater treatment plant in Essex will be added, he said. The bacteria in the slurry will consume the thiodiglycol, leaving water, and a little salt.
“We’ve really proved this out quite well,” Young said. “If we can boil water and mix the mustard agent with it in the right proportions, we can neutralize it. And if we can operate a sewage treatment plant, we can operate this. The underlying process is so simple it’s hard to see where it could go wrong.”
It will probably take about two years for the Army to secure the environmental permits it needs for the project and another two years to build the plant, Young said.
“We’d probably start operations in 2002,” he said. That should leave ample time to dispose of all the mustard agent by the 2004 deadline, he said.