The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the Army $122,300 this week for violations involving the nation's prototype chemical weapons incinerator, which is run by an agency at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The fine is the first against the controversial program to burn the nation's 30,000-ton chemical weapons stockpile at Aberdeen and seven other U.S. sites. The Army was cited for a leak of deadly nerve agent and improper waste storage and handling at its incinerator on remote Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, which the service is operating to prove that it can burn the weapons safely in populated areas.
About 300,000 people -- the largest population near any of the eight storage sites -- live within 15 miles of the Aberdeen stockpile of 1,500 tons of mustard agent. The Army wants to operate the Aberdeen plant, at a cost of as much as $1 billion, starting in 2001.
The Army played down the significance of the leak at Johnston Island that occurred March 23, 1994, saying that it involved a fraction of a pound of nerve agent and that no one was hurt. But Craig Williams, a leading citizen activist fighting the plan, said similar leaks could cause "full-scale" evacuations at more populated sites such as Aberdeen.
Citizens opposed to the Army's $11 billion incineration plan say the Johnston Island plant has been plagued by cost overruns, fires, explosions and leaks, including an incident involving anerve agent.
The Army says it has safely destroyed more than 100,000 chemical-filled weapons and containers at Johnston Island -- and that the fine is simply a measure of the strict oversight by regulators.