Responsible Response in Harford

December 16, 1992

The Army's admission that suspected cancer-causing chemicals from the Aberdeen Proving Ground have seeped into Harford County's drinking water supply confirms what has been suspected since the contamination was discovered a year ago in the Perryman well field.

The incident also confirms what eco-worriers have been warning about for some time, the possibility of buried contaminants migrating from the military complex into aquifers serving the outside community. Water may flow naturally in one direction -- away from the Perryman fields in this case -- but heavy pumping can suck the underground currents back toward the well field. APG prudently takes its own drinking water from sources distant from the testing grounds.

But the Army has assumed responsibility for the tricholoethylene (TCE) pollution, a common solvent that was burned at a fire-fighting training field shut down in 1989. APG will supply water to Harford from its treatment plant, as the county shuts down one well next month, and will remove the pollution from the ground water.

Unlike some of the other issues that have divided APG and Harford County, such as planned incineration of toxic mustard agent stockpiles, this task has the confident agreement of both parties. That is a welcome sign of cooperation.

It's the first time that APG has linked its toxic-laden testing grounds with contamination of a public water supply. But it raises again the specter of other underground chemicals, long forgotten or ignored, that may still leach into the tributaries of the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.

The Army's prompt confession and action plan contrasts with the foot-dragging of Harford County officials who waited almost a year to disclose their discovery of TCE in the drinking water supplies. The county's indifferent effort was, indeed, noted publicly this week by an APG official.

Harford citizens were entitled to an honest and timely disclosure of contamination by their elected officials. TCE levels were below federal safe drinking water limits, and there was no cause for panic. The county administration apparently felt it could not trust its constituents.

Higher levels of TCE have now been found in APG monitoring wells, however, which warrants the prompt remedial action for the Perryman field. Assuming full responsibility for the $500,000 cleanup, APG is demonstrating good faith in dealing with the community.

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