The Army says it doesn't have the money to clear out a toxic waste dump in the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Ground that has contaminated Watson Creek.
"We're talking about megabucks to clean it up, and those kinds of dollars currently are not available," deputy base commander Col. Robert Mortis told about 70 people gathered Thursday at a public hearing on the dump, the Old O-Field landfill. The Army isproposing building a system of wells and a treatment plant to clean up the ground water that migrates into the creek.
Most of the 70 people who attended the hearing on the Edgewood side of the proving ground were not satisfied that the Army is doing enough about the dump, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed on its Superfund list of the nation's most toxic.
"Obviously, there's an element of public relations here," said Joppatowne resident Brian B. Feeney, who spoke for the Community Coalition of HarfordCounty. "They're motivated to paint the best face possible."
Armyofficials acknowledged that they haven't tested how the contamination has affected fish and wildlife but said such studies are planned.
Harford state Delegate Mary Louise Preis, D-34, said she was confident that the Army eventually plans to clean up the dump.
"I think everybody understands that the Army is honestly trying to perform a balancing act to clean up each site but not spend too much money at any one site," she said. "What we're interested in is not having them under-spend on our site."
The Army has spent more than $60 million on environmental programs in the past four years, most of it to studywaste dumps like O-Field.
The Army's $1.9 million ground water cleanup project would operate like a gigantic kidney dialysis machine, using chemical and ultraviolet radiation to constantly purify the water of such contaminants as mustard gas agent, arsenic, cadmium and other toxins dumped in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Army estimates the system would cost about $467,000 a year to run and could require an expensive repair schedule, depending on how long it would operate.
As long as the hazardous materials fill the 4.5-acre site, the Army would have to continue treating the ground water to stop polluting Watson Creek, which feeds the Gunpowder River.
The EPA supports the Army project, which wouldn't begin construction until 1993. But the Army and the EPA are soliciting further written public comment until Aug. 17.
"Maybe a safety net is a good description of what's going onhere," said EPA remediation manager Steven Hirsh. "We know we had this contamination. We know it was getting off base and into the waters. We know we could do something about it."
Although the EPA includes the entire 13,000-acre Edgewood area of the proving ground on the Superfund list, the $9 billion program is dedicated only to cleaning up dumps owned by private industry. Mortis said the Army simply doesn't have the money in its own environmental account to dig up and dispose of the waste buried in O-Field.
Project manager Cynthia Couch said that regardless of the cost, the Army believes there is too muchrisk of accidentally exploding chemical munitions.
"Even if we had $300 million, we don't feel right now it is safe to community to remove it," she said.
Feeney, who works for a hazardous waste disposal firm in Columbia, suggested that the Army might not have the time to keep pumping ground water until it finds a safe way to handle the hazardous waste.
"That's the worst possible combination of mixed waste," he said. "It's a classic Catch-22. You don't want the chlorinated hydrocarbons and mustard gas and the heavy metals leaking into the ground water. But you don't want to risk setting off an explosion.
Feeney suggested the Army reconsider an option it rejected to entomb the O-Field dump with a polyurethane liner, concrete walls and a layer of clay and vegetation.