EDGEWOOD -- Army plans to decontaminate ground water poisoned by mustard gas agent and other waste from an Aberdeen Proving Ground dump provoked suspicions from Harford County residents last night that the site might never be cleaned up.
The Army, with the tentative endorsement of the Environmental Protection Agency, wants to stop further pollution of nearby Watson Creek until technology is developed to safely clean up the Old O-Field in the Edgewood area of the weapons-testing base.
The EPA included the O-Field when it placed the entire 13,000-acre Edgewood area on its Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous waste sites in February 1990.
But the $9 billion Superfund is designated only for private dumps and the Army has to clean up the proving ground with its own money.
State Delegate Mary Louise Preis, D-Harford, was the only county resident in a crowd of about 70 people at last night's public hearing at the Edgewood Area Conference Center who said she was confident that the Army eventually plans to dispose of the chemical warfare agents, munitions and other hazardous wastes that were buried at the 4.5-acre site in the 1940s and 1950s.
"I think everybody understands that the Army is honestly to perform a balancing act to clean up each site but not spend too much money at any one site," she said after the hearing.
"What we're interested in is not having them underspend on our site."
By concentrating on cleaning up the ground water, the Army is simply trying to deal with one problem with a ready solution, said Col. Robert Mortis, deputy base commander.
"Yes, this is a Band-Aid approach, but we get limited dollars in the environmental restoration account just like we get limited dollars for everything else," he said.
Cynthia Couch, O-Field project manager, estimated it would cost more than $300 million to remove the contents of the dump. During the next three to five years, the Army will study ways to decontaminate the creek of arsenic, cadmium and other toxins and clean up the landfill.
The pollution does not affect supplies of residential drinking water and is contained within the base on a peninsula surrounded by the Gunpowder and Bush rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The O-Field cleanup would involve pumping the ground water through a treatment plant, where it would be decontaminated and discharged into either Watson Creek or Gunpowder River.
Army officials say it is not safe to try to remove the contents of the dump because remote-control machinery that would be used to protect workers could inadvertently set off a chemical weapons explosion.
But assurances that the proposal is only a first step only raised further doubts last night that the Army will never spend the money needed to correct the source of the pollution.
"The problem is we could have chronic contamination from leaking over a period of years while they hold more news conferences," said Brian B. Feeney, speaking for the Community Coalition of Harford County, a citizens' watchdog group.
The Army and the EPA are soliciting comments on the plan through Aug. 17.