From Russia to Aberdeen, Maryland:

Chemical Weapons Disposal Poses Hazardous Problem

by Richard Ochs

FROM OCTOBER 13 TO 26, environmental activists from nine U.S. chemical weapons disposal sites traveled to Russia to view similar problems in that country. The trip was sponsored by the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, and I was among the U.S. participants.

About 30,000 tons of chemical weapons in the U.S. and 40,000 tons in Russia are slated for disposal. That translates to 60 million pounds and 80 million pounds, respectively-equivalent to the weight of 533,000 to 400,000 150-pound adults.

These lethal substances include stockpiles of nerve agent and mustard agent. At Aberdeen Proving Ground alone, there is a stockpile of about 1,500 tons-three million pounds-of mustard agent. These toxic substances, by international treaty, are slated for destruction by the year 2004.

The U.S./Russia Summit participants supported this disposal, but unanimously rejected incineration as the way to do it.

Although many Russians near chemical weapons sites have become sick or died, however, clinical and epidemiological proof that chemical weapons were the cause is lacking. In fact, except for documentation of symptoms, such health studies have not been performed either in the U.S. or in Russia.

Jim Ruttenber, a public health doctor and professor who accompanied the delegation, stressed the need for funding and coordination of both clinical and epidemiological studies in the two countries.

While Russia was forced to discontinue incineration because of public protests and is working on developing neutralization methods, the U.S. Army has been incinerating chemical weapons and plans to build more incinerators for this purpose, perhaps including one at Aberdeen.

Pat Costner, a GreenPeace chemist accompanying the delegation, reported that harmful byproducts are released into the atmosphere during incineration or open detonation of these chemical weapons. "Formation of polychlorinated dioxins and furans as well as a similar complex halogenated substances is inescapable, given the apparent abundance of both chlorinated and bromated species," she wrote. "Yields [of these contaminants] can be expected to be substantial in certain cases."

Since the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) has issued neither an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) nor documentation on the APG's current practice open detonation of chemical weapons, the delegation considered the possibility of taking legal action to stop the open detonation until a better disposal system can be implemented.

The delegation's legal workshop revealed that U.S. states can pass tougher environmental laws than those mandated by federal law, and that existing air pollution standards in Maryland may prevent future APG incineration compliance. If the open detonations of unexploded ordnance (UXO) at APG are not incompliance with Maryland law, the detonation permits would be illegal. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army are trying to bar states from passing tougher standards than those required by federal law. A bill is pending in Annapolis to accomplish just that in Maryland.

Meanwhile, a new chemical waste incinerator is doing "test burns" in Tooele, Utah. Nearby residents, fearful that their local hospital will be unable to care for those injured in a potential serious accident due to lack of training in emergency medicine, are calling on the state of Utah to study local diseases, such as cancer, stillbirths, and babies with encephalitis.

The five-year-old billion-dollar chemical waste incinerator on Johnston Island near Hawaii has experienced nerve agent releases, explosions, many shutdowns, and two hurricane evacuations. It is ten years behind schedule and 600% over budget.

Under pressure from environmentalists, the Army is considering four alternatives to incineration. Three are "closed loop" systems of chemical weapons oxidation, which release few or no harmful byproducts into the environment. The fourth is a biological neutralization of the weapons using enzymes from municipal waste treatment plants.

A last public meeting to consider how Aberdeen Proving Ground's chemical weapons will be destroyed will be held in mid-March. For information, call 243-2077.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on March 7, 1996.