Pollution at Detrick is probed Toxins turn up in nearby wells

November 18, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- State environmental officials have pledged to conduct a comprehensive investigation of potential pollution problems at Fort Detrick after discovering toxic chemicals in the well water of nearby homes.

Records reviewed by The Sun indicate that the effort is long overdue. The Army and the state have had repeated warnings over the last 15 years that the soil and ground water around the 1,200-acre post could be contaminated by hazardous wastes.

But the Army dismissed or simply missed the warning signs, and the state likewise failed to take action until recently, when unsafe levels of trichloroethylene were detected in three wells and a spring near the fort.

A widely used de-greasing agent, trichloroethylene, or TCE, is suspected of causing liver cancer. Traces of TCE and other toxic chemicals also were found in six other homeowners' wells.

The 49-year-old post houses the Army's research center for defense against biological warfare, as well as civilian government laboratories in which cancer and crop diseases are studied.

But Detrick has a toxic legacy. From World War II until 1969, biological and chemical weapons were tested and developed there under tight secrecy.

Scientists studied more than 160 different strains of bacteria, fungi, parasites, toxins and viruses for their potential to kill enemy troops or the crops and forests that would feed and hide them, according to a 1977 Army report.

The "germ warfare" research was conducted under strict safeguards intended to protect post personnel and nearby residents. But the Army apparently did not take similarly effective precautions with its storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals, records indicate.

Although the Army is now supplying bottled water to 10 families near the fort, Norman Covert, Detrick's spokesman, and other Detrick officials maintain that the toxic chemicals found in the homeowners' wells could be coming from elsewhere.

One of the homeowners, Emory Starner, paid about $3,500 to hook up to Frederick's municipal water system because his well had unsafe TCE levels.

"If it's Detrick's fault, I think they should pay," said the 82-year-old retiree. "If it isn't Detrick's fault, why did they provide bottled water so quickly?"

Mr. Starner's home is one of about 40 near Area B that relied on wells for drinking water.

One tainted well on the post has been used occasionally by a neighboring farmer to water his dairy cattle.

The same chemicals found in homeowners' wells have been showing up for the past 18 months in ground water sampled in the little-developed western portion of the post, known as Area B or "the grid."

"We're going to be chasing this stuff for years," said Michael E. Burns, a private environmental and safety consultant. He was chemical safety officer for five years at the National Cancer Institute lab at Detrick.

Army officials "don't know what they put here," added Mr. Burns. "They have never done a complete contaminant survey."

The 400-acre Area B was used as a proving ground and a landfill until biological weapons testing ended. The area still has an active landfill that accepts only municipal waste, an Army reserve center, communications antennae and pastureland for livestock used in research.

More than 20 years ago the Army buried large amounts of biological, chemical and radioactive wastes there, according to reports reviewed by The Sun.

Indeed, an Army environmental team concluded in January 1977 that Fort Detrick's Area B was likely to be contaminated with those materials and that a "high potential" existed for the pollution to spread beyond the base because of underlying porous rock and a high water table.

About 800 gallons of liquid herbicides and more than 600 pounds of powdered herbicides were buried in Area B in 1970 and 1971, the 1977 report says.

Cans, drums and packs containing acids and chemicals were placed in shallow, unlined pits, according to the report. Those chemicals included commercial weed-killers, but also more potent defoliants used in the Vietnam war, such as Agent Orange.

Warning of anthrax

The 1977 report also warns that Area B may be contaminated below ground with anthrax, a bacteria that kills livestock and can kill people.

About 150 tons of liquid waste, including 25 tons of sewage sludge containing anthrax spores, were buried in Area B in 1972, the 1977 report says.

Disposal workers poured bleach on the waste but may not have killed all the spores.

Other materials buried in Area B include radioactive materials, sterilized animal carcasses and two cylinders of phosgene, a lethal chemical agent.

Also interred were the incinerated remains of a mysterious chemical identified in the 1977 report only as "TX."

"Serious situation"

The Army environmental team said in 1977 that its investigation "strongly indicates a serious situation" at Fort Detrick, and it urged soil and ground water tests.

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