Community, Company Clash Over Nerve Gas Testing
The controversy surrounding nerve gas testing at the Arthur D. Little (ADL) research laboratory erupted Thursday night, when company officials, debated local residents in a heated confrontation that lasted three hours.
With more than 250 residents of Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge looking on, four ADL representatives presented the firm's reasons for challenging a 1984 Cambridge ordinance which bans the testing, storage, and transportation of chemical warfare agents within city limits.
ADL Senior Vice President D. Reid Weedon told the audience that the Levins laboratory--where the testing is actually conducted under a contract with the Department of Defense--is probably "the best facility of its kind in the country" in terms of safety and security precautions.
In the event of an accident at ADL, according to Weedon, a puff of nerve gases released into the atmosphere outside the North Cambridge laboratory "would result in not one public fatality."
Weedon added that although several accidents have occurred in the 14 laboratories testing the nerve agents nationwide, there have been no reports of deaths due to mishaps.
But members of the North Cambridge Toxic Alert Group, a grassroots organization concerned about hazardous substances in the environment, unleashed a slew of attacks upon ADL's motives and corporate credibility.
Countering ADL guarantees that the laboratory--located about two miles from the University--is safe for employees and neighborhood residents, Toxic Alert member Steve Schnapp showed slides of environmental disasters resulting from industrial accidents.
"We've heard these kinds of company assurances before," said Schnapp, citing broken promises of safety made by the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, the Babcock and Wilcox nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, and the Hooker Chemical Co. at Love Canal.
"Will North Cambridge be the next disaster on the 11 o'clock news?" Schnapp asked.
Sharon Moran said during Toxic Alert's 30-minute presentation that Cambridge is no place for a laboratory testing such hazardous substances, since the city is "one of the top five most densely populated in the U.S."
Emphasizing the potential benefits of chemical warfare research to medicine and the armed forces, Weedon said society would lose out on scientific research banned by municipalities.
Claiming that no federal or state inspector has ever raised serious questions about the safety of the ADL laboratory. Weedon said that Cambridge police and fire officials, as well as the city manager, were all notified of the testing one year in advance.
"In October of 1983, the Cambridge health commissioner [Melvin Chalfen] inspected the lab and allowed five months to elapse before taking any action, said Weedon, adding that Chalfen declared ADL's testing unsafe last March because of political pressure from the city council.
"To [Cambridge's] elected representatives, neighborhood groups and scientific advisory committee, the risks posed by the testing of toxic substances are not acceptable," said Dr. David Ozonoff, a Boston University professor of public health and member of the city's 16-member scientific advisory board. "I have a bias in favor of public health."
Alert Group member Edward Cyr said ADL went to great lengths to make sure the public and city officials did not know about plans to test nerve agents until well after the $1 million Levins laboratory was completed.
"Will ADL tell us they had a spill when they didn't even let us know they built this lab?" Cyr asked.
Threatening retaliatory measures, Cyr added. "If they choose to be bad neighbors, so will we."
"They're trying to convince us that the only reason they're doing research is for the well-being of this community," said John T. O'Connor, a member of the city's advisory board. "Let's make this clear--the reason ADL is in this is for the money and the money alone." O'Connor said in reference to the lucrative Defense Department contract.
During 45 minutes of questions from the audience, ADL President John F. Magee volunteered his firm's expertise to develop "responsible legislation" to regulate supertoxins in Cambridge.
"We will be happy to abide by any regulation that is reasonably established," said Magee, who accused the Toxic Alert Group of opposing the whole concept of chemical warfare testing.
ADL officials also said that, although moving the testing to a remote area would be too costly for the international research firm, they would consider halting the testing altogether if community opposition persisted.
Last month Middlesex Superior Court Judge Robert J. Hallisey upheld Cambridge's nerve gas testing ban, calling the regulation reasonable and enforceable. In the addendum to his decision, Hallisey encouraged an appeals court to overturn his verdict on the basis of the city's procedures in setting up the regulations.
But ADL still maintains that the local ban is "arbitrary and capricious" and filed an appeal on March 5 in what is expected to be a long and bitter fight with the city.
Chemical warfare research in the Levins laboratory will cease until ADL's appeal has been settled, according to company officials