Old O-Field at Aberdeen Proving Ground contains a witch's brew of chemical warfare agents, munitions and other waste that is leaking into nearby waterways and endangering fish, birds and other wildlife.
In addition to U.S. munitions, chemical munitions captured from the Germans and the Japanese are believed to have been buried there in the mid-1940s.
Now, the proving ground is proposing a multimillion-dollar cleanup at the 4.5-acre dump, which was last used in 1953. It is part of one of the nation's largest toxic dumps on the federal Superfund list and one of the most difficult to clean up because there is a danger of the waste exploding if it is disturbed, say officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The cleanup is more correctly called a "containment" effort, proving ground officials say, because the buried waste may not be removed for many years -- if at all.
The planned work is the subject of a public meeting scheduled for 7 tonight at the Conference Center auditorium in the proving ground's Edgewood area. The Army and the EPA are soliciting comments on the project until Aug. 17. Work is not scheduled to begin before 1993.
"We're going to have to go in there eventually," says Cynthia Couch, a hazardous waste specialist at the proving ground. "This 4.5 acres is our most intense toxic-waste site."
Officials at the proving ground and at the EPA say there is no safe method for digging up munitions buried in the dump without risking an explosion that might create a plume of toxic smoke. Such an explosion could endanger workers at the huge Harford County installation and people living around it, they say.
Drilling wells to study the underground contamination must be performed remotely, with workers wearing protective suits and sitting in concrete bunkers.
So, until a safe method is found, or until officials decide that it's better not to disturb the waste, the proving ground is planning an
effort to stop pollutants from causing further damage to surrounding waterways.
That involves digging wells, pumping out contaminating ground water, treating it, then discharging the treated water to the Gunpowder River.
"We are finding high levels" of metals and other contaminants in the waterways, Couch says. "We know it's migrating. We feel we have to stop it."
The EPA has concurred with the Army's proposal, but the Maryland Department of the Environment still is preparing a formal response to the plan.
"Something has got to be done now," says John Goheen, a
spokesman for state environment department. The state and the Army "both agree that more needs to be done to address the source," he says.
Though the project is only a temporary fix, Couch says, treatment of the ground water may be necessary for decades to come. If officials eventually attempt to dig up the waste, the work could end up costing more than $400 million over the next 20 years.
"It's a lot of money for the taxpayers to be paying at one installation," Couch acknowledges.
The proving ground is one of many military installations, as well as private sites, fouled before present-day environmental laws were enacted.
The Army is expected to spend $5 billion to $10 billion on dump site cleanups over the next 15 years, according to an analyst at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. In a recent study, the analyst, Lt. Col. Kent H. Butts, cited an EPA estimate that puts the cost of cleaning up all Army waste sites at $250 billion.
Building the extraction system at Old O-Field is estimated to cost about $3 million. Another $13 million will be needed to operate it for more than 30 years. Even more money is needed to continue studying what effects the contamination around the dump is having on life in the nearby waterways.
dTC Old O-Field -- the Army used letters to designate different research sites and disposal areas at the proving ground -- is one of hundreds of small and large old dump sites at the 72,000-acre installation. The Army estimates that it will need to spend $40 million or $50 million on cleanup projects each year there for many years.
Old O-Field, midway down the 13,000-acre peninsula that is the Edgewood area of the proving ground, is bordered by Watson Creek to the north and east and the Gunpowder River to the west. Pits and trenches were dug there and used for burying an unknown quantity of waste during the 1940s and early 1950s. The waste was associated with the proving ground's research into chemical warfare.
That research continues today, primarily involving ways to defend against chemical attacks, but waste generated now is shipped to burial sites in other states.
Cleanup attempts at Old O-Field began as early as 1949. They included the application of decontaminating agents, which actually resulted in more ground-water contamination. In 1953, the site was soaked with fuel oil, ignited and allowed to burn for days. Work continued until the mid-1970s, primarily involving removal of munitions.
In February 1990, the entire Edgewood area was added to the federal Superfund list of the nation's worst toxic dumps.
During the past decade, work there has consisted of studying the extent of contamination.
Contaminants in the ground water that are fouling Watson Creek and the Gunpowder include arsenic, zinc, chloroform and pollutants formed from the decomposition of mustard and nerve agents.
So far, the Army has not found contamination from Old O-Field or other proving ground dumps to be fouling public drinking water supplies. Studies to date conclude that people have no way of being exposed to significant levels of pollutants leaking from Old O-Field.
Fish, sandpipers and other birds, muskrats and other wildlife are being exposed to the pollutants, scientists with the Army and the EPA say, but the damage it may be causing has not been studied much.