The decision to delay the incineration of obsolete Army chemical weapons, including 1,500 tons of mustard agent stored at Aberdeen Proving Ground, provides an opportunity to seriously examine alternative means of disposal. And it finally mandates needed citizen input on disposal decisions at APG.
Since the Army opted in 1988 for on-site incineration to eliminate these World War II stockpiles at eight U.S. locations, other technologies have been virtually ignored. Until this year, the Army's exploration of "options" mostly focused on how and where to burn.
It wasn't bad faith but expediency in reaching a 1994 disposal deadline set by Congress. Technical problems led to several extensions to 1999, but the law enacted last week pushes the deadline back five years to 2004.
Now the military must evaluate methods such as chemical or biological neutralization of the deadly stores of nerve gas and mustard agent. The act suggests that a combination of incineration and other methods may be used to meet each site's distinctive requirements.
Given the problems with test burns of chemical weapons in the Pacific, and studies that show release of carcinogens into the air from incomplete incineration, these options should be studied. Greenpeace, the environmental group, suggests two dozen ways to defang the chemical serpent.
Incineration is also hugely expensive: the project's cost has quadrupled in five years to $8 billion. Each incinerator ($300 million and up) must by law be destroyed after burning the chemicals.
A citizens advisory committee would provide much-needed local participation in the critical decision. Residents around these planned chemical incinerators have too often been heard only after decisions were made.
The Army has been placed in a bind. On the one hand, it insists it can continue to safely store antiquated chemical agents; on the other hand, it argues the stockpile must be neutralized soon lest a potential accident release the deadly chemicals.
In the past, politicians have voted for delay only for their political advantage, not to address the problem. The timing of this measure suggests a similar motivation. But the new law aims to conform U.S. deadlines for disposal of chemical weapons to those of an international accord due to be signed in Geneva next year. It's a good start.