Since December, Geomet Technologies Inc., nestled between an Italian bakery and a Sears warehouse in Gaithersburg, has gone quietly about its business of "science serving society," as the laboratory's logo proclaims. None of the local residents knew or seemed to care what the slogan meant.
But last week, when residents of the Washington Grove community learned that Geomet was conducting tests on nerve agents designed for chemical warfare about 600 feet from the local elementary school and near a day-care center, they complained to everyone from their congressman, Michael D. Barnes, to the U.S. secretary of defense.
Geomet officials, along with county officials who investigated, said there was no reason for alarm. "You're going to find more in their garages and basements that could be dangerous to their children than the danger from us," said Charles T. Judkins Jr., Geomet's executive vice president. "We're part of the 'clean' industry they wanted in this area."
Nonetheless, members of the Washington Grove Elementary PTA sent a letter to the Air Force, asking it to stop its contractual work at the Geomet lab.
Citizens first became alarmed after a Laytonsville civic association member working on another project happened upon police records showing the transport of poison to Washington Grove.
County fire and police officials confirmed for local residents that they had escorted an Air Force shipment of "class A poison" from Montgomery County Airpark to Geomet's lab on April 2.
Then a spokesman for the Air Force acknowledged that the "class A poison" was 55 mililiters (1.86 ounces) of four nerve agents, all designed for chemical warfare. It was shipped from the Army Chemical Systems Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md., to Geomet, at 8577 Atlas Dr.
The nerve agents are being tested on materials that might be used in protective flight suits to see if they will penetrate the materials, according to Air Force Capt. Johnny Whitaker.
The amount the lab is testing of one of the agents--10 milliliters of VX--could, if disseminated in warfare as an air contaminant, kill 40,000 people, according to an April 1980 report in Scientific American magazine.
Geomet recognizes the potential danger of these chemicals and is extremely cautious in its testing, Judkins said. Only eight people have clearance to enter the lab. Two staffers must enter together and two keys from two safes are required to open the two chemical hoods where the nerve agents are kept, he said.
The employes test the cloth by sticking swatches of it into the hoods. And once the chemicals are tested, they are put through a carbon filter to get rid of their toxicity. Judkins declined to reveal how the chemicals and cloth are disposed of, saying only that disposal meets all state and federal laws.
A spokesman for the office of environmental programs in the Maryland State Health Department visited the site, and then said, "We have evaluated the testing procedure and it is satisfactory to control any emissions into the air."
Further, the spokesman said, "in case of an accident or a spill, a release of emissions would not occur."
Judkins stressed the lab's security precautions and his company's reputation, developed over 15 years in the county. (The parent company is located in Rockville.)
"We're the people who did air, water and soil sampling at Love Canal," Judkins said, referring to Geomet's EPA contract for a four-month investigation of the hazardous waste dump site in 1981 in upstate New York.
Geomet's 1982 revenues of $3.3 million were down from $5.8 million in 1981. The company hopes to bring in more money by shifting to what Judkins calls "hard science," particularly military work.
Half of Geomet's business this year is from Department of Defense contracts, Judkins said, including studies of pollutants in Army tanks and chemical cloud travel. Other Geomet projects include compliance analyses for the Environmental Protection Agency and a year-long project for the Electric Power Research Institute, for which the firm had two houses built to measure indoor air pollution.