New tests at Aberdeen Proving Ground: Are its deer safe to eat? Studies part of bid to clean waste dumps

October 18, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

The outback of Aberdeen Proving Ground can look more like a wildlife refuge than a place where the machines of war are tested.

At night, hundreds of deer graze along the back roads by expansive woods and marshes, their eyes glowing in the headlights of cars. In winter, more than 100 bald eagles roost in secluded wooded areas well behind security fences. Snapping turtles and other reptiles slither through the marshes.

The animals are all part of the food chain at the 72,000-acre Army research and weapons-testing installation in Harford County.

People, too, are part of that food chain, and scientists from the Army and other federal agencies want to know whether folks are eating deer, fish or other critters that may be contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

Studies of animal and fish tissue are part of the Army's effort to evaluate and clean up hundreds of old waste dumps -- some leaking chemicals into ground water and streams. Some of the dumps haven't been used since the 1950s or before. Some contain unexploded munitions thought to contain nerve agents and other warfare chemicals, as well as more common solvents, metals and organic chemicals.

"We know the public is concerned," said John Paul, project officer for risk assessment at the proving ground's Directorate for Safety, Health and the Environment. "We're still in the data-collection phase."

The Army wants to spend as much as $800 million on that cleanup effort by the year 2000, said Cindy Powels, acting chief of installation restoration for the proving ground.

In addition, representatives of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are set to visit Harford and Kent counties next week to interview residents about human health concerns involving the proving ground.

The Atlanta-based agency, part of the U.S. Public Health Service, is preparing a report on human health risks associated with the proving ground's federally designated Superfund hazardous waste sites.

Interviews with people who live around the proving ground, part of a federally required process for evaluating Superfund sites, will be conducted in private and will be incorporated in the agency's report, expected to be released in four months.

The report, a public health assessment, will recommend more studies and cite potential "exposure pathways," or the ways people may come in contact with chemicals, said Dr. Gary Campbell, an environmental health scientist at the Atlanta agency. He is one of the authors of the agency's health report.

The proving ground's Superfund sites include the entire 13,000-acre Edgewood area, which houses the main Army chemical warfare research center, and Michaelsville Landfill, an old solid waste dump in the Aberdeen area that is to be capped with clay and synthetic material to stop organic chemicals and metals from leaching into ground water.

Whether any of the Army's past disposal practices have harmed or can harm people has never been answered.

The studies planned to help answer that question include:

* A program to sample deer meat from animals taken by hunters as early as this fall. Hunters harvest 1,200 to 1,350 deer at the proving ground each year, officials said.

* An effort to sample fish tissue and fish populations, costing about $300,000 initially, that is scheduled to start in the spring. The Army recently signed an agreement with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and local universities to study the fish.

* Evaluation of recently collected flesh from snapping turtles. Officials said as much as 4,000 pounds of turtle meat obtained from the proving ground is sold commercially each year.

* A continuing effort to study the flow of ground water from an old firefighter training area to determine whether trichloroethylene, a toxic solvent found in the ground water at the site, could move toward Harford County's drinking water wells about 1.5 miles away in Perryman.

For years, residents in Joppa, Edgewood and other communities have expressed fears about contaminants spreading beyond the proving ground's borders and into the water they drink, the air they breath and fish or other critters they may eat.

Some residents, such as Helen Richick, a Joppa resident and local environmental activist, strongly suspect that pollutants from the proving ground are affecting people living around the installation.

Contaminants "are draining into major tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay. There has to be some degree of harm being done," she said.

Ms. Richick has helped the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry set up next week's interviews with residents.

INTERVIEW SESSIONS

Representatives of the Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have scheduled several interview sessions on possible health implications of pollution from Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Residents of Harford and Kent counties may speak one-on-one with agency personnel. Conversations are confidential. Information will be used as part of a report the agency is preparing for release in about four months.

Interview sessions are scheduled for:

* Oct. 26: 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kent County public library, 408 High St. in Chestertown.

* Oct. 27: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Aberdeen branch library, 21 Franklin St. in Aberdeen.

* Oct. 28: 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the American Legion Post 17, 415 Edgewood Road in Edgewood.

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