While American soldiers in the Persian Gulf are wondering whether Iraq will use chemical weapons against them, the Army is continuing its long fight about how and where to destroy aging stocks of such poison munitions at home.
The Army will hold a public meeting Tuesday on its plan to incinerate a stockpile of old mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where U.S. chemical warfare research began in 1917. The proving ground stores about 5 percent of the Army's old chemical agents, or about 1,500 tons out of an estimated 30,000 tons.
It wants to know what it should include in an 18-month environmental study of the plan, which already has been the subject of five years of local and national debate. The "scoping" meeting is to be at Edgewood High School, 2415 Willoughby Beach Road, Edgewood, starting at 7 p.m.
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, other politicians and opponents living near the incinerator site say they will reiterate their claim that the Army has not proven its burning method safe.
They also say they will press the Army to reconsider the possibility of transporting the Aberdeen stockpile elsewhere, given last fall's successful shipment more than 100,000 old nerve agent munitions from Germany to a test incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
Aberdeen is one of eight U.S. sites where the burning would occur, but it is the most populated. About 40,000 people live within six miles of the proposed incinerator site along the Bush River. They would be most at risk in the event of an accident, the Army says.
When used on a battlefield, mustard blisters the skin, damages the respiratory tract and can be fatal in heavy doses. Iraq used mustard and nerve agents in its war with Iran during the 1980s. Both chemicals often are incorrectly called "gases." They are liquids that create a fine poison mist when exploded over a battlefield.
In a recent letter to the Army, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said that "the past four years have provided numerous pieces of new information, and the Army must take the time to revisit the decision" to build an incinerator at the proving ground. The incinerator would cost an estimated $255 million to build and operate, the Army says.
Schaefer cited the shipment of the European stockpile and the growth of residential neighborhoods around the proposed plant, some of which are on a peninsula with only one road out.
Louise Dyson, a spokeswoman for the Army's chemical demilitarization program, said the plan to build an incinerator at Aberdeen was "not set in stone."
But Rehrmann, who campaigned last year as an opponent of the Aberdeen incinerator, claimed that the Army was not looking seriously at shipping the Aberdeen stockpile elsewhere.
Congress ordered the destruction of the Army's old chemical weapons in 1985, when it approved production of a newer class of such munitions. The Army is about three years behind schedule in the destruction program, partly because of additional safety studies ordered by Congress. The completion date is now set for December 1998.
Confounding the situation, Congress also has ordered the Army to study whether the planned incinerators at Aberdeen and elsewhere could be used to destroy other hazardous waste. Further use of the plants would require an act of Congress, because current law says they must be dismantled after the warfare agents are burned.