Army says chemical in neighbors' wells is seeping from APG

December 08, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

A chemical from Aberdeen Proving Ground has entered an underground well field that supplies water to 12,000 homes and businesses in Harford County, the U.S. Army acknowledged yesterday.

Low levels of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, a suspected carcinogen, continue to be present in the county's Perryman well field, county and Army officials said yesterday.

As a result of the discovery, the county plans to shut down one of eight wells in the well field later this month.

The Army plans to replace the water lost from the shutdown -- up to 900,000 gallons a day -- with water from its two treatment plants.

Army studies in recent months found that the source of the contamination is an old firefighter-training area on the proving ground, about 1 1/2 miles east of the well field.

Levels of TCE found in the county well field have never been above the federal drinking-water standard for that chemical, which is 5 parts per billion, said officials with the Army and the county.

In general, federal drinking-water standards are developed by estimating the chances of increasing the risk of cancer or some other ailment if a person consumes several gallons of contaminated water each day for 70 years.

Still, Army officials say, they do not want the level of TCE in the water to increase.

Studies conducted in recent months have found TCE as high as 22 parts per billion in test wells just 300 feet from wells in the county well field -- at the same depths at which the county withdraws its water.

"The Army has got a problem," said Maj. Gen. Richard Tragemann, the proving ground's commander, at a monthly environmental briefing held yesterday for county and state officials.

"I'm here to assure you that the Army has a responsibility to solve that problem," the general said.

The proving ground, a major weapons-testing and research installation since it opened in 1917, has been found in the past decade to have extensive areas of underground chemical contamination.

But the Army has said for years that the contaminated ground water was moving east, toward the Chesapeake Bay and away from populated areas.

The recent discovery marks the first time in the proving ground's history that the Army has found that it has introduced a toxic chemical into a public drinking-water supply.

Recent Army studies conclude that, because the county is withdrawing millions of gallons of water daily at its Perryman well field, the TCE from the firefighter-training area is being pulled westward.

Also, the Army has agreed to install and pay for a treatment system to remove the TCE.

Army officials, who said they plan to begin operating the treatment system sometime next year, said they have not yet calculated the cost of the project.

Once a system of filters is installed, the county will be able to resume using all eight wells, officials said.

Proving ground officials plan to meet at the Pentagon tomorrow with Lewis D. Walker, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health, to press their case for money with which to build the treatment system.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who attended the environmental briefing, praised the Army's cooperation.

"Aberdeen Proving Ground has made this its top priority," she said of the cleanup project. "We have assurances that it will remain a top priority for the Army."

The Perryman well field, along the northern border of the proving ground, supplies about half the water to the county's 24,000 residential and business customers. The rest of the water comes from the Susquehanna River and a few wells in Joppatowne.

The county first found low levels of TCE in the Perryman wells more than a year ago, and the proving ground has been a suspected source.

"We don't know that we're the only contributor," said James Butanis, a top civilian environmental official at the proving ground. "The county isn't really doing a whole lot to see that there are not other sources," he said.

TCE was intentionally ignited at the training area so firefighters from the proving ground and volunteer fire companies from Baltimore, Cecil and Harford counties could learn how to put out chemical fires.

The training area operated from the early 1960s until 1989. It was replaced in April 1991 with a new facility that has environmental safeguards to prevent ground water contamination.

The Army is also investigating whether TCE may be moving from a nearby storage yard for old aircraft.

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