Army admits new poisons at Aberdeen


Despite repeated assurances that all deadly chemical warfare agents were removed 10 years ago from a now-closed research laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Army officials last week acknowledged two recent, unexpected discoveries at the building: a container of lethal nerve agent and about 1,000 gallons of toxic sludge.

Army officials, who had not publicly discussed the discoveries, acknowledged the finds after The Sun learned about them from proving ground sources.

After the discoveries, which came during an effort to prepare the lab for eventual demolition, the nerve agent was diluted and put into storage at the proving ground and the sludge was shipped to a disposal site outside of the state, the Army said.

"It was an oversight," Mickey Morales, an Army spokesman, said yesterday. "There was no intention of storing it improperly."

Mr. Morales said the experience "was a lesson learned. In the future, when we say something is clean, we're going to ensure that it is clean before we say it is."

Yesterday, the Maryland Department of the Environment announced it had signed an agreement with the proving ground designed to quicken the pace of the testing and cleanup of hundreds of underground storage tanks on the installation. Most of the tanks hold petroleum products that can pollute ground water.

Word of the recent discoveries comes amid three separate investigations into environmental violations and other alleged environmental problems at the proving ground. Two of the probes are being conducted by the Army and one is being conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In recent weeks, proving ground officials reassigned the installation's chief of environmental protection, and the state environment department fined the proving ground $5,000 for hazardous waste violations over a three-year period.

The lab, known as the Pilot Plant or Building E-5625, was the focus of a high-profile criminal investigation and trial in the late 1980s that resulted in felony convictions of three top civilian executives in federal court in Baltimore. The convictions -- which received national attention because individual federal workers were prosecuted, not their Army bosses -- were for mishandling of a variety of dangerous chemical waste.

Army officials confirmed the discoveries in discussing a renewed effort to demolish the Pilot Plant, where top-secret research into chemical weapons occurred for more than 40 years. The Army closed the lab in early 1986 after one of its own inspectors complained that the four-story, deteriorating building was a "virtual Pandora's Box of potential sources of contamination of surface water and ground water."

Nerve agents, like the one found recently, are fast-acting poisons that disrupt the central nervous system. Exposure can occur by absorption through the skin or by inhalation. Death occurs because uncontrollable muscle contractions lead to asphyxiation.

One drop of nerve agent can kill a person, Army officials say.

The discoveries were made during a 23-month effort, ending last fall, to remove all equipment from the lab in preparation for its demolition.

None of the chemicals was released into the environment and no one was exposed to them, said Tim Blades, a proving ground official who supervised the Pilot Plant equipment removal and cleanup.

Mr. Blades said officials were surprised to find 300 milliliters, or about 10 ounces, of a nerve agent called GB in late 1991. The material was in a 2-liter container that was packed in a 5-gallon bucket.

State and federal authorities repeatedly had been assured that lethal warfare agents -- including GB -- had been removed from the Pilot Plant as of 1983.

In a March 28, 1986, public briefing, an Army colonel said: "In 1983, all work with lethal chemical agents at the Pilot Plant ceased. These agents were moved to a modern facility that affords up-to-date safety, security and environmental controls."

The toxic sludge -- which was in a 35-foot-tall tank that was part of a waste-treatment system -- contained hydrocarbons, metals and chemicals formed in the degradation of lethal warfare agents, Mr. Blades said.

In a 1985 Army memo soon after a spill of 200 gallons of sulfuric acid at the Pilot Plant, officials wrote of efforts to "drain and remove all existing tanks within the Pilot Plant compound."

The spill caused a fish kill in Canal Creek, a tributary of the Gunpowder River which flows into Chesapeake Bay.

Proving ground sources said at least two Army environmental workers were ordered -- against their will -- into the Pilot Plant to investigate the recent discoveries. The sources said many people still fear chemical hazards in the lab and fear the prospect of criminal liability resulting from any work at the the building.

A federal prosecutor, as well as Harford County officials, said they expected that all waste would have been removed from the Pilot Plant long ago.

When told that nerve agent was found in the lab 15 months ago, Jane F. Barrett, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the proving ground executives, said the Army told her during her investigation before the trial that "there were no nerve agents left in Pilot Plant . . . and that any remaining cleanup [of hazardous waste] was being coordinated with the state."

Jeffrey D. Wilson, the Harford County Council president, said: "I don't understand why it took them from the end of 1991 until now to tell us this" waste was found.

Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the Army informed his agency of the waste discoveries.

He acknowledged that the Pilot Plant was not a "permitted" waste-storage site. He said a literal reading of waste laws would mean the material should have been removed within 90 days after the building was closed in early 1986.

Mr. Sullivan said state authorities had no indication the Army knew the nerve agent and the toxic sludge were there.

"Having this material at that facility was not an ideal situation," Mr. Sullivan said. But, he added, state officials determined that the storage did not pose a threat to the public.

The Pilot Plant -- not just a building but an intense stigma for the proving ground -- was the site of top-secret research into how to manufacture chemical munitions.

When it opened in 1941, it was used for research into clothing to protect against chemical warfare agents. In 1943, that research began focusing on the agents themselves. The last major project involved research critical to the production of binary chemical weapons, which use two non-lethal chemicals that combine to form a deadly nerve agent after the firing of a munition.

During operation, the Pilot Plant allowed researchers to perfect weapons-manufacturing processes.

The criminal trial in Baltimore, after which the Army executives were fined and put on probation, pulled back the curtain on all the problems with the management of hazardous waste at the proving ground.

"If you think we can continue to do things the way you've done it for the last 40 years, you're going to jail," Maj. Gen. George H. Akin, the former commander of the proving ground, said in December 1988, just before the trial.

Asked last week whether he was sure all waste had been removed from the Pilot Plant, Mr. Blades said: "I would bank my career on it."

Some proving ground officials have estimated that the demolition of the lab could cost $30 million to $60 million.

In preparing for the eventual demolition -- which is required by an international treaty on chemical weapons signed in January -- the Army removed 1.6 million pounds of metal piping, equipment and other apparatus. Any of the material exposed to warfare agents was decontaminated with a liquid treatment and in an incinerator at the proving ground, Mr. Blades said.

The proving ground is seeking $2 million for a study to determine the safest and most cost-effective way to tear down the Pilot Plant, a project that Army officials have pushed for at least four years. The study is needed to determine whether dangerous or deadly chemicals exist in the walls of the building.

In addition, the proving ground is studying the extent of ground-water contamination around the Pilot Plant.

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