While some Harford County residents worry about plans to process tons of asbestos at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Army and the contractor that would operate the plant say their pilot project would be a safe way to test a better disposal method for the hazardous material.
"If we thought there were real safety or environmental issues involved with process and procedures used, we wouldn't do them," said Tim Blades, deputy director of chemical-biological services at the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, part of APG.
The Army plans to spend $5 million next year to test a process that would, in essence, turn the military's asbestos into sand.
The pilot project, which is awaiting state permits, would process 4 million pounds of asbestos from military sites from New York to Virginia and perhaps elsewhere. It would last for no more than a year and would be operated by A-Conversion LLC, the New York contractor that developed the disposal process.
Despite the assurances, however, some residents and watchdog groups have their doubts.
"Asbestos is a very dangerous material. It's a terrible death," said Truxon Sykes, treasurer of White Lung Association, a Baltimore-based anti-asbestos group, although he acknowledged some removal techniques can be safe.
Asbestos is a mineral made of microscopic fiber bundles. Because it is fire- and heat-resistant, it has been used in more than 3,000 types of commercial products, such as construction materials and insulation, according to research by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Untouched, asbestos is harmless. But disturbed, asbestos fibers break off and float in the air, where they can remain for hours. Breathing the tiny particles can lead to scarred lungs and lung cancer. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of exposure.
In 1989, the federal government banned most asbestos use. Thousands of institutions, - from schools to the military - have undertaken the painstaking, costly and risky job of asbestos removal. The Department of Defense, for example, has more than 10 million pounds slated for removal, said Terry Gustafson, an Edgewood environmental coordinator.
Last year, a federal appropriations bill charged Edgewood with developing safer disposal methods. Edgewood formed a partnership with A-Conversion LLC, which had tested its chemical process at the Edgewood center in 1997.
At the time, the process proved it could break down asbestos into minute, benign silica particles, much like sand. But it was too expensive for practical applications, said Dennis Bolt, the project's engineer. This time, he said, Edgewood will test the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the project.
A-Conversion's process bathes asbestos in chemicals, spins it at high speeds and filters it with diatomaceous earth, sand and lime to break down and neutralize it into fine, nonhazardous silica particles.
Tony Nocito, A-Conversion co-owner, said the converted asbestos is safe enough be recycled into concrete blocks or asphalt. However, Edgewood will deposit its treated asbestos in landfills, and likely will seek one outside Maryland because state landfills cannot accommodate the volume, Gustafson said.
According to Nocito, all the uniforms and protective plastics used in the process will be scrubbed and recycled. Nocito also said that his company has increased its air-filtering procedure beyond EPA standards. The company will use carbon filters to prevent noxious fumes from the sulfuric acid and fluorine used in the process from tainting outside air, Gustafson said.
Researchers are likely to seek asbestos from nearby sources, according to Bolt. Edgewood has not contacted the donor sites, and no equipment has been purchased, he said.
The project raises few red flags for Patrick Breysse, a professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"Asbestos is not like many chemicals in our environment. It is not an acute hazard - it takes years of inhaling it to cause disease," Breysse said.
Asbestos is easier to contain than liquid chemicals, and is noncorrosive and nonreactive, he said, so if there was a spill, and if authorities responded quickly and efficiently, there would be a risk, but likely not a big risk.
"Personally, I wouldn't be too concerned," as long as adequate plans for remediation and transport are in place, Breysse said.
Yet at two public hearings last month, residents voiced concern about their possible exposure to potential hazards. One hearing was held by the Army in Edgewood and the other quickly organized by Harford County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Joppa-Edgewood Democrat.
"It was standing-room-only," Guthrie said about his hearing. "There is a lot of concern in the community."
APG has been involved with the destruction of a stockpile of poisonous mustard agent that dates to World War II. Because it is a test site for biological, chemical and other weapons, the 72,500-acre APG is not without its own environmental woes.
According to news reports, workers in the 1970s disposed of mustard agent and other poisons by burning them in trenches.
In the 1980s, three managers were convicted of violating hazardous-waste laws. And in 1994, APG was fined $140,000 by state and federal regulators for other toxic-waste violations.
Last year and last summer, APG experienced several low-level leaks of World War II-era mustard agent. No one was injured.
APG officials say they will follow industry standards in handling and transporting the asbestos.
The material will be double-bagged and sealed in locked drums on a closed-bed truck, Bolt said. State and local emergency teams, too, are well-equipped to handle emergencies, should one occur, officials added.
APG strives to be a "good steward for the environment and local community," Blades said. "We don't think ... we'll breach that trust."