A three-truck convoy hauled nearly seven tons of highly toxic mustard agent from one part of Aberdeen Proving Ground to another without incident yesterday, the largest transport of warfare chemicals at the post in about 10 years and the first of three scheduled this month or next.
The successful shipment marks another major step in the effort to determine whether a promising chemical and biological "neutralization" process -- instead of a $500 million incinerator -- can safely destroy 1,500 tons of the material stored at the post.
Mustard agent is an oily liquid that blisters skin, burns the respiratory system and causes cancer. Most of the Aberdeen stockpile, which is in large steel cylinders in an outdoor storage yard near the Bush River, has been largely undisturbed for 50 years.
Bills passed by Congress and by the Maryland legislature
require the Army to study alternatives to burning the Aberdeen stockpile, one of eight in the United States.
Last month, Aberdeen scientists said they had detoxified mustard agent in the laboratory by exposing it to near-boiling water then "feeding" the remaining chemicals to bacteria contained in sewage sludge from the Back River Water Water Treatment Plant in Essex.
This month, the scientists plan to continue testing the hot water-sludge process using larger quantities of mustard agent.
To do that, the Army must move about 20 tons, or more than 4,000 gallons, of the liquid two miles to another part of the post so it can be sampled in a building with sealed chambers and other environmental controls.
Scientists must determine the chemical's thickness and other physical characteristics, and amounts of impurities to judge its suitability for the neutralization process and to design a pilot destruction plant.
"Our research to date has been done with relatively pure agent," said Marilyn Tischbin, a spokeswoman for the Army's chemical weapons destruction program, which is based at Aberdeen. "We need to find out exactly what is in the containers."
Though the Army considered the risk of an accident during yesterday's move to be slight, there were about 100 safety, security and medical personnel on hand for the 7:30 a.m. operation.
Two similar movements of mustard agent from the storage yard to the sampling facility are scheduled to occur on Saturdays this month or next. For security reasons, the Army has not announced the dates.
The neutralization research is being watched worldwide as nations look for environmentally acceptable ways to get rid of chemical weapons.
Though the Army favors burning the Aberdeen stockpile and seven others around the country, citizens near the depots fear incinerator accidents and long-term risks, and say the $11 billion incineration cost is too high.
Citizens advocating alternatives to incineration say movement of the mustard agent at Aberdeen is not worrisome.
"The Army has an excellent history of transporting these chemicals," said Linda Koplovitiz, head of the Bel Air-based Concerned Citizens for Maryland's Environment.
Her group and the state-appointed citizens panel on which she serves have been pushing alternatives to burning the Aberdeen stockpile.
James W. Terrell, Harford's emergency operations chief, said county officials consider moving the chemical to be "pretty benign."
More worrisome to Edgewood and Joppa residents is the recent discovery of unexploded chemical shells along the post's border.
More shells could be found during a scheduled cleanup at a 300-acre former training and testing area called the Nike site, which borders hundreds of homes in Edgewood and three public schools.
But Army safety experts said that in a worst-case accident involving mustard agent, the material, which does not evaporate easily, simply would spill on the ground and stay there, only to be quickly contained by emergency crews.
No conceiveable accident would have posed a risk to people living near the post, the experts said, unless it involved the unlikely event of a large fire that would create a toxic cloud.