Harford Residents Can't Afford To Ignore Proving Ground

THE OBSERVER

August 11, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Aberdeen Proving Ground is without question the county's most important entity -- and in some ways the most frightening.

It is far andaway the county's largest employer of civilians. It pumps millions of orders into the regional economy, from orders for computer parts and food to contracts for off-base testing of military hardware. Its scientists and technicians are a windfall of energy and brain power forthe community.

But there is a downside. On the vast expanse of the proving ground, there are at least two potential environmental nightmares.

Theyare the dozens of stored 1-ton containers of old mustard gas agent that the Army is under congressional order to destroy before they destroy us, and the highly contaminated Old O-Field, polluted with a morass of heavy metals and chemical weapons agents.

These distressing situations, if not addressed properly in the near term, could have severe consequences for the environment.

The O-Field already is already wreaking havoc on the area environment, to be sure.

That's whyHarford residents should take an active interest in these two situations and become as well informed as possible.

Vigilant citizens will ensure that reasoned decisions are made on addressing these issuesand that community well-being will be a priority.

I bring this upbecause it seems that Harford residents, by and large, have taken the attitude that the "government" and "activists" and "press" are on top of the issues and will guide them directly. As a case in point, when the proving ground holds its monthly environmental update meetings, very few, if any, citizens show up.

Ask the people who once lived near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor about trusting too much in the "government" and leaving the questions to someone else.

Don't be skittish about asking the Army or your elected representatives on the local or state level for records and information about these two issues and the proposals drafted so far to address them.

One of the quickest ways you can get involved is to take the opportunity before theAug. 17 deadline to send the Army your thoughts on their proposal tokeep ground water from the contaminated O-Field from continuing to pollute a creek that runs into the Gunpowder River, which feeds Maryland's damaged jewel, Chesapeake Bay.

The O-Field is a caldron of chemical warfare agents, munitions and other hazardous wastes that sit in a 4.5-acre dump.

Other contaminants discovered there are heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.

This site 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. Why? There is a danger of the waste exploding if it is disturbed, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Army doesn't allow anyone near this death pit for obvious reasons. The area is protected and screened off.

No one's in imminent danger, but because the creek is polluted by the mess and flowing into the Gunpowder River, you have to wonder what contaminants are making their way into the river's fish and wildlife populations andalong the shoreline near the O-Field.

Biologists will tell you that creatures at the lower end of the food chain, such as fish, tend to build up contaminants in their bodies over time. Remember DDT?

The Army has a $1.9 million plan to clean up the ground water, a project that a reporter described as operating "like a gigantic kidney dialysis machine." It would use chemical and ultraviolet radiation to constantly purify the water of the contaminants, some of whichhave beenthere since the 1940s and 1950s.

The Army estimates the system would cost about $467,000 a year to run. It could require also an expensive repair schedule, depending on how long it would operate.

As long as hazardous materials fill the 4.5-acre site, the Army would have to continue treating the water.

That might cost an awful lot of money, but if you were a eagle nesting near the O-Field and feeding on the fish of the Gunpowder and bay, I bet you'd say "spend it."

*

To obtain information about or to comment on of the Army's proposal to contain pollution from the O-Field, contact Cynthia Couch, Directorate of Safety, Health & Environment, ATTN: STEAPH-SH-E, Aberdeen Proving Ground 21010, or call 671-3320.

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