Radiation in Arundel

November 30, 1992

Anne Arundel County residents anxious to see how Rep Wayne Gilchrest tackles their problems won't have to wait long. After winning the right to represent the new 1st District that includes a large portion of Arundel as well as the entire Eastern Shore in the Nov. 3 election, Mr. Gilchrest's first major task on the Western Shore was handed to him recently when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that an old Army depot in Glen Burnie is saturated with excessive radiation.

The 85-acre, county-owned site on New Ordnance Road is the same site County Executive Robert R. Neall wants to use for a new detention center. At this point, the idea of building a jail there is unthinkable. But even if nothing is ever built on this property, it must be cleaned up.

Thorium nitrate is an especially potent radioactive substance, and scientists confirm that the levels at the depot are high enough to pose health risks to a person who merely stands near it. The NRC, which considers anything above 10 picocuries per gram excessive, found soil near buildings where thorium nitrate had leaked from barrels that was contaminated with concentrations as high as 126 pCi/g. The concentrations in crawl space samples went as high as 640 pCi/g.

The county, which bought the property 12 years ago, clearly was sold a bill of goods by the NRC. It's true that there were no guidelines for radiation contamination in soil in 1977, when the NRC gave the site a clean bill of health; those guidelines were developed shortly after the county bought it.

But the NRC should have gone back and tested the soil to make sure it was safe, or at least advised the county to have it tested. Instead, it continued to rely on an evaluation it knew was outdated and incomplete.

As recently as last March, when the Anne Arundel County Council asked if it was safe to build a jail on the old depot, the NRC offered assurances based on its 1977 findings. It is sheer luck that the property -- which the county had been trying to sell for economic development -- has been sitting idle and that few people have been exposed.

The feds are responsible for this mess, and they should clean it up. Estimates put the cost at a staggering $24 million to $100 million. Mr. Gilchrest says he is checking now to see if the site qualifies for emergency funds. If he doesn't already know that Arundel citizens are watching to see how quickly and effectively its new congressman alleviates this health risk, he should.

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