Underwater blast facility at proving ground questioned Lawmakers say military is rushing environmental review of project.

June 07, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

The Army and Navy want to build a test facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground that officials say is important to the development of the Seawolf attack submarine, but local lawmakers and others claim the military is rushing an environmental review of the project.

The $22 million project proposed to be built along the Bush River would be used to ensure that submarines and other warships can withstand the shock of large explosions from mines and bombs in combat. Such tests are mandated by Congress, Navy officials say.

Army and Navy officials call the Underwater Explosions Test Facility -- a 920-foot-wide, 150-foot-deep pond -- an "environmental enhancement" because it removes such testing from natural waterways. But some lawmakers, scientists and others say they need more time to ensure that the project does not harm endangered bald eagles at the Harford County proving ground as well as fish and other aquatic life in surrounding waterways.

Such tests had been conducted in the lower Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, Va., the Gulf of Mexico near Key West, Fla., and the Pacific Ocean off California. Tests in the Chesapeake were halted in 1987 after a series of fish kills, and tests at the other sites have since been stopped after concerns were raised about risks to dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life.

Army officials at the proving ground prepared an environmental study of the project last month, concluding that it would cause no "significant" environmental harm.

"We look at this project as a very beneficial one for the environment," said Col. Roy E. Fouch, commander of the Army Combat Systems Test Activity at the proving ground. "It's going to be good for the Navy, good for us and good for the environment," he said yesterday.

It not only will create temporary construction jobs and millions of dollars in local contracts but also will add about 50 permanent jobs, Fouch said.

And, project manager Paul A. Tennant said, planners are proposing to build 100 acres of wetlands along the bay using soil dug during the pond construction.

Proving ground officials acknowledge that they are on a tight schedule to gain state and federal permits for the project in time to meet the Navy schedule to begin testing by late summer of 1992. The pond will take about a year to build, they said.

The proving ground built a smaller test pond in 1989, but it is not big enough to accommodate the large explosions the Navy says needs nor big enough to handle the submarine and ship sections to be tested.

Among those with concerns, Theresa M. Pierno, a Harford County Council member, said, "It's probably is better [than testing in natural waterways]. But let's make sure that we have done the necessary studies."

Andy Moser, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis, said a two-sentence reference to bald eagles in the Army environmental study was "inadequate."

"They haven't done their homework," he said.

"We haven't said we are against this," said Pam Serino, an environmental scientist at the proving ground who also is director of the Conservation Federation of Maryland, a state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. "We are saying, 'slow down.' "

Serino is not associated with the test project and did not participate in the environmental study.

In response to concerns that more time is needed for an environmental review, the proving ground has extended the public comment period until June 28 and agreed to hold a public meeting on the project June 18.

Also, the project will be on the agenda Tuesday during at a public briefing on environmental issues given for Maj. Gen. George H. Akin, the proving ground's commander, and local and state political leaders.

Proving ground officials say the 60-acre site proposed for the pond, a large field with some wetland areas, has been used for decades for mine and bomb testing. They say the closest eagle roosting area is about 2,000 yards away.

"There's been activity here for a long time," Jan Vanderhoff, an environmental protection specialist at the proving ground, said during a visit to the site yesterday.

The 72,000-acre proving ground, a major weapons-testing site for the Army and other Defense Department agencies, is home to as many as 100 bald eagles at certain times during the year. Some of the migratory birds nest there among expansive marshes and woodlands, and many others roost there in winter.

The birds seem to have gotten used to the din of constant weapons testing, but scientists say they don't know how much noise and human activity they can tolerate. The proving ground provides the best eagle habitat in the upper Chesapeake Bay, wildlife officials say.

Pierno and others also have raised questions about the possible environmental effects of a plan to dredge a channel in the Bush River to allow barges to transport full-scale submarine and ship parts to the pond. Those questioning the project want to make sure the dredging does not disturb pollutants that may be buried at the bottom of the river.

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