The Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground is requesting a federal permit for a munitions assessment and processing facility that is expected to handle a number of deadly chemical agents, including Sarin, a nerve agent outlawed by the Geneva Convention that was used in the deadly 1995 terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway system.
Andrew Murphy, spokesman for APG's environmental division, said at a public presentation last week that the permit request would just add the facility, known by the acronym MAPS, to a list of several other hazardous-waste processing facilities at the Army installation in Harford County that would be licensed under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certification.
The Sept. 14 presentation about the MAPS permit, which was held at the Edgewood Library, drew fewer than 10 people despite being advertised and publicized beforehand.
The MAPS, located in an 11,755-square-foot facility built in 2003, processes phosgene, mustard and the nerve agent Sarin, also known as GB, Murphy said Monday.
The permit would allow the plant, which has been in testing mode until this point, to be made fully operational, he said.
The system would only be used several weeks a year, Murphy said.
"It would be put to an operational use versus testing, but it's not being contemplated as being a high-use facility, by any means," he said.
Murphy also said he does not expect any major controversy about the MAPS operations, unlike the public concern that initially surrounded a chemical agent neutralization facility used until 2007 to destroy APG's mustard agent stockpile.
"My understanding is most of the controversy was people wondered about trucks going on [Interstate] 95," he said. "There are much more toxic things that go up and down 95 every day."
MAPS has operated intermittently under an Maryland Department of the Environment-issued research, development and demonstration permit originally issued in 2001.
Idle since 2008
The system has been largely idle for the past three years because of fiscal constraints and Army restrictions on locating and recovering buried munitions at APG.
APG submitted requests in 2006 and 2007 to add five facilities besides the MAPS to the federal permit, but because of inadequate staffing and workload, the original permit expired in 2009, Murphy said during last week's meeting in Edgewood.
Murphy explained all six facilities that would be covered under the permit have already been operating under the conditions the federal license requires.
The EPA issued APG its first such permit in 1999 for the chemical agent neutralization facility. That facility processed a mustard agent stockpile, much of which dated to the end of World War I and was stored on the Edgewood Area of APG, formerly known as Edgewood Arsenal.
Mustard is a chemical blistering agent that burns skin, eyes and, if its fumes are inhaled, the respiratory system. Exposure can be fatal.
The Army originally wanted to incinerate the mustard agent stored at Edgewood and at other Army sites around the world, but the public outcry about the process and the prospect for shipments being sent to Edgewood via truck and rail caused the Army to back off, coming up with the alternative of chemically neutralizing the mustard at the sites where it was stockpiled.
The Edgewood mustard neutralization facility closed in 2007 after the mustard agent was chemically neutralized and safely disposed of at another location, as were any containers in which it was stored.
The biological center plans to use parts of the MAPS facility to support hazardous waste operations on a limited, part-time basis. According to the Army, MAPS is in a remote area of APG's Edgewood test range complex.
The federal application amends two previous requests to add hazardous waste treatment or storage units to the post's organic air emissions control permit.
History with nerve agents
A variety of highly toxic chemical warfare agents have been tested and stored at APG for decades, not without controversy.
The Army also has previously acknowledged that even banned substances, such as Sarin, may still be kept in small amounts for identification and testing purposes. The ID and testing purposes could include instances where use of the chemical agent may be suspected by a hostile power, in a terrorist attack or in trying to determine how a particular chemical affects soldiers and others who may come in contact with it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Sarin is similar to certain types of organic pesticides, but much more potent. The compound was developed in Germany in the 1930s as a pesticide.
Sarin is a clear, colorless and tasteless liquid with no odor in its pure form and can evaporate into a vapor that spreads into the environment. Exposure occurs through skin or eye contact or by breathing vapors. It can also be mixed with water.
The CDC says Sarin and other nerve agents are suspected of being used during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. It was used by a Japanese terrorist group in the March 1995 attacks on the Japanese subway system that killed 13 people, according to the CDC.
Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Edgewood performed testing on munitions suspected of containing another deadly nerve agent, VX, confirming for the United Nations that Iraq had the capability to produce and deliver the agent in short range missiles, despite Iraq's claims to the contrary.
VX was developed in the 1950s and the Army has since acknowledged open air tests involving VX exposure to soldiers were performed at Edgewood in the 1960s.
In 2003, there was a small fire at one of the Edgewood labs experimenting with VX decontamination, although no workers were exposed, according to the Army.
In 2006, 15 workers at one of the Edgewood labs working with both VX and mustard were placed under medical observation following a brief power outage at their building. The Army said the measure was taken because of possible leakage and the potential for exposure, even though people working with the agent wear special suits and respirators. No injuries were ever reported.
In December 2008, the Army announced it had destroyed all remaining munitions stockpiles that contained VX; however, it declined to say how much of the deadly agent was kept for testing purposes. At the time, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency said there no testing involving VX being conducted at APG.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun