The U.S. Army and Greenpeace ended a community meeting Monday by agreeing to disagree on what to do with the military's aging stockpile of mustard agent.
To the Army, plans to incinerate mustard agent should proceed until another method of disposal is available, although it could take a decade or more before such technology is developed.
But to Greenpeace, any of the possible alternatives would be preferable to incineration, and it may be better to wait for the methods to be developed.
Representatives of the Army and Greenpeace met at the session sponsored by the Committee for National Security, a Washington-based educational organization that works to inform the public on arms control and national security issues.
The purpose of the meeting, held at the Edgewood High School auditorium, was to discuss alternatives for disposing of the military's supply of chemical weapons. About 35 people attended.
Whatever alternatives are developed may not be any better than incineration, said Charles Baronian, director of the Army's Chemical Demilitarization Program at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"As long as [the stockpile] exists, it represents a threat," Mr. Baronian said. "The Army feels that incineration is a viable way to get rid of this threat once and for all."
The Army is scheduled to build an incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1995, but the plan may be postponed because of two bills in Congress and a forthcoming federal report on disposing of chemical agents.
APG has at least 5 percent of the Army's stockpile of mustard agents, Mr. Baronian said. He would not disclose the size of the stockpile, although APG is said by government officials to have at least 1,500 tons of the blistering poison.
Incineration poses too many risks because it is difficult to pinpoint the amount of hazardous material leaving an incinerator's stacks, said Sebia Hawkins of Greenpeace.
"You're going to have that landfill-in-the-sky phenomenon," Ms. Hawkins warned.
The international environment organization issued a report in May 1991 outlining alternatives to the incineration of chemical agents. The report detailed numerous possibilities using biological, chemical and thermal methods for disposal.
With these methods, the Army would be able to sample emissions before releasing them into the air to determine whether they contain hazardous materials, Ms. Hawkins said.
Until these methods are developed, the Army can "demilitarize" its stockpiled agents to meet the terms of international treaties banning the use of chemical weapons, she said.
Congress has passed bills that would freeze the money the Army needs to build incinerators at APG, Lexington, Ky., and Newport, Ind.
The bills, if signed into law, would also require the Army to study other ways to dispose of the chemical agents and to investigate health effects and public safety concerns.
The Army is waiting for a National Research Council report that is expected to detail the best methods of handling chemical warfare agents.
Mr. Baronian said the Army will follow the recommendations of the council's report, which is due next March.
If the council recommends alternative forms of disposal, it may take the Army 10 years of laboratory tests, pilot programs, government approval and construction before it can begin disposal, Mr. Baronian said.
But one resident urged the Army to move promptly, saying that a decade is too long to wait to eliminate the potential threats posed by old chemical agents.
"I don't see that incineration is the way to go at all," she said. "But I think you better hurry up. . . . I would like to see this get done."