Toxic-waste cleanup at bases urged Pentagon is taken to task for its "abysmal" record here, elsewhere.

March 20, 1991|By Nancy Walser | Nancy Walser,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- As the troops return from the Persian Gulf, Congress and the Pentagon should put priority on cleaning up more than 14,000 known toxic-waste sites at U.S. military installations, including 478 in Maryland, a Boston-based environmental group says.

Calling the Pentagon's environmental record "abysmal," the National Toxic Campaign Fund has released a 143-page report detailing past and present dumping practices implicated in unexplained illnesses and abnormal cancer outbreaks near bases across the country.

To date, the Pentagon has cleaned up only 287 of the 14,401 potentially dangerous sites at 1,579 facilities nationwide, said the group, which based its report on military data from 1989. Roughly 100 of these sites, including two at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, are listed as among the most toxic in the country by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Now that the war is over, we're asking the president, the Congress and other leaders to give us the tools we need to clean up and prevent these problems in the future," said John O'Connor, president of the 7-year-old advocacy group.

"We believe it's time that the Pentagon stop the chemical warfare at home and attend to this mess and protect our families," said O'Connor.

However, Glenn Flood, a Pentagon spokesman, said the group is misleading the public about the seriousness of toxic dumping by the military.

"We identified 14,000 sites as anything that might remotely have a problem, resulting from things we saw and what people told us," Flood said.

The sites, tallied for an annual report to Congress, counted everything from "one paint can that might be leaking" to Denver's troubled Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which has contaminated the area's water supplies, he said.

Flood predicted that half of the 14,000 sites would be eliminated from the list through "reassessments" and immediate cleanups by the time the Pentagon submits its 1991 report.

Of the 478 potentially troublesome sites in Maryland, only two have been cleaned up, according to the report. With 72 sites, Fort Meade had the largest number, followed by 66 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, 46 at Fort Detrick in Frederick and 39 at the Harry Diamond Laboratory in Adelphi. All are Army installations.

Landfills and other toxic spills on bases have been known to threaten water supplies of surrounding communities and cause future problems due to soil contamination from exploded ordnance and use of other heavy metals.

But the extent and nature of the pollution at each of the 14,000 sites is still largely unknown because the Pentagon is exempt from reporting the same kind of information that industries must give federal regulators each year, said O'Connor.

Under the Community Right to Know Act, businesses must tell the government about the types and quantity of hazardous chemicals they release into the environment.

But members of the National Toxic Campaign accused the military of hiding or ignoring well-known dangers.

Benny Muniz of Henderson, Colo., said she and her neighbors had no idea until last summer that a byproduct of nerve gas -- produced by the Army's Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the 1950s -- had contaminated their drinking water. They learned of the situation when the state ordered residents to stop using their taps and began delivering bottled water.

"The world's been concerned until recently with the possible use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein," said Muniz. "Our problem is that we're being threatened by the same chemicals in my community."

To expedite cleanups and prevent further pollution, the Pentagon needs more resources, the report said.

The Pentagon's inspector general has said the total price of such a project could approach $200 billion. O'Connor said Congress should earmark $10 billion a year -- a tenfold increase in current spending -- to get the job done.

The military's legal obligation to conform to federal environmental standards is a "gray area" that should be also clarified with legislation," he added.

"At minimum, they should agree to conform with existing environmental laws on the books," O'Connor said.

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