Recent disclosures of spills and dumping from a major chemical weapons research plant at Aberdeen Proving Ground have left many residents of nearby towns increasingly uneasy about the Army's handling of lethal chemical weapons.
"Harford County is a misnomer, it should be Hazard County anymore," Carolyn Sorensen, 39, who has lived in Edgewood since 1965, told Army officials at a meeting here Tuesday night to discuss plans by the Defense Department to dispose of chemical weapons now stockpiled at the proving ground and at seven other posts across the country.
About 100 residents of nearby towns such as Aberdeen and Edgewood attended the meeting, held in the wake of publicity about a series of mishaps involving toxic chemicals and the Army's acknowledgment recently that the 83,000-acre site by the Chesapeake Bay is riddled with decades-old hazardous waste dumps.
Army officials provided little consolation other than to say that incineration appears to be the safest method of destroying the chemical weapons stockpile at Aberdeen, which amounts to about 5 percent of the nation's total.
Army officials also promised that experts will explore risks such as accidents and emergency evacuation plans in a report to be issued this summer.
Arthur C. Eder, a 34-year-old restaurant manager who asked numerous questions at the meeting, said yesterday that he had talked with Army officials afterward about supplying protective masks and developing other precautions in case of an emergency.
"If they're burning it the stockpile there and they do have an accident, they're not going to broadcast it," Eder said. "I want to protect myself and my family. I don't want to die because of their secrecy.
"Like Chernobyl, they have a tendency to cover things up in a bureaucracy -- whether it's the Army or any other bureaucracy -- to save face."
Sorensen, echoing the concerns of more than a dozen speakers who addressed the proposal to incinerate Aberdeen chemicals, said she was worried about the potential for a serious accident.
"The margin of human error is very narrow . . . and a mistake may be hazardous to your health," Sorensen said. "This burning? Not in my back yard, not if I have anything to do about it."
Sam Carnes, one of four Army officials who briefed the crowd, said that "particularly in light of Bhopal and Chernobyl" the Army "is very concerned about" exploring an emergency plan. "We're taking a serious look," he said.
The bulk of the stockpile stored at Aberdeen is mustard nerve agent, which the National Academy of Sciences described in a November 1985 report as a "potent carcinogen" with no safe level of human exposure.
Exposure to mustard agent, which smells like garlic, also can cause swelling and blistering of the skin, eyes and lungs, and death.
In January, the Army will announce which of three options it has chosen for disposing of chemicals.
One possibility is that chemical weapons would be taken across the country in special railroad cars to be burned in incinerators at one national disposal site in Utah. The other options are to transport the weapons by rail and burn them at two regional centers, or to destroy them where they are stored.
If the national disposal site at Tooele, Utah, is chosen, 51 percent of the nation's chemical stockpile will be carried through 20 states, including Maryland, Army officials said.
Except for Baltimore and Salt Lake City, areas of 100,000 population or more will be avoided by rail convoys traveling 15 to 35 miles an hour, officials said.
If regional centers are chosen, they would likely be in Tooele and Anniston, Ala., according to Army officials. Twenty-one percent of the national stockpile would be transported through five Western states for disposal at Tooele, while 22.5 percent from the East would be transported through 11 states, including Maryland, for disposal in Anniston.
Like Sorensen and Eder, many people at the meeting had reservations about all three options.
"I'm almost positive that I don't want it burned on site," Sorensen said, "but are other states going to let it be transported through their state? You hear every day about trains being derailed.
"There is no margin of error when you're dealing with these things. It's going to be a real touchy situation; no matter which way they go it's going to be between the devil and the deep blue sea," Sorensen said.
This week's meeting was the sixth in a series of eight the Army is holding nationwide to alert the public to a federal law that requires disposal by 1994 of 90 percent of chemical weapons stored at Army posts from Aberdeen to Oregon. The remaining 10 percent can be maintained for future use at the discretion of the secretary of defense.
"We've heard all of the same questions," Marilyn Tischbin, spokeswoman for the Army's chemical demilitarization program, said after the nearly four-hour meeting. "Tonight it was longer and more probing, probably because of concerns raised recently over management and safety" at Aberdeen.
Army officials said the amount of chemical weapons stockpiled in the United States is classified.