A Harford County citizens' group demanded last night that Aberdeen Proving Ground conduct a lengthy environmental study that could delay construction of a 60-acre test explosion pond at the edge of the Bush River.
During a public comment hearing at the military base, the Community Coalition of Harford County and other environmental activists questioned whether the U.S. Army has taken a serious look at how the $22 million project would affect the river, the Chesapeake Bay, a colony of eagles near the site and residents of the area.
"This is a win, win, win," said James Fasig, the proving ground's live-fire testing chief.
He said the U.S. Navy would win by finding a site to test how well its Seahawk submarine stands up to explosions; the environment wins because the pond would restore 100 acres of wetlands at the proving ground and require no more open-water testing in the bay or the Gulf of Mexico; and the community wins because the project would pump about $13.5 million into the area through local contractors.
The community coalition, which has had success blocking commercial development in the growing Bayside county, will present its petition for an environmental impact statement to Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski.
Speaking for the group, Helen Richick said citizens are not satisfied with the proving ground's own finding last month of no significant environmental impact.
Under federal standards, a full-fledged environmental study could take three months or more, delaying the project's nine-month construction. The Navy wants to begin testing at the site by next July.
Proving ground officials gave a presentation claiming that the 15-foot deep pond and surrounding dirt berms would protect the river and nearby residents from the effects of noise and shock.
But many speakers were openly suspicious, like George Litchfield, who lives about three miles north of the pond site along the Bush River.
"Right now, with the big guns testing, it knocks my flower pots off the window sills and the pictures off my wall," he said. "Am I now going to have cracks in my cellar?"
Pam Serino, speaking for the Conservation Federation of Maryland, also suggested that the proving ground rushed its study to avoid public debate.
"I guess your definition of significant impact is a little different from ours," she said. "Maybe [you are] putting out this environmental assessment before we have all the information."
Proving ground officials expect to win a permit for the project next month from the Army Corps of Engineers after it reviews public comment. So far, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has not taken a position.
The deadline for sending written comment to the proving ground is June 28.