County Stands Up About APG's Waste

COMMENT

January 24, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Harford County's effort to take coontrol of its environmental future ran into another roadblock this month at a familiar crossing: the border with Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The military post balked at giving the county oversight and authority over its hazardous waste incinerator, which is used to burn up the leftovers from various chemical warfare testing projects that have been a mainstay of APG activity for decades. The state of Maryland already has permit authority over the federal incinerator.

State authorities got a handle on the incinerator back in 1985, and then got a 1988 consent agreement that committed the federal installation to meet state standards for storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste at APG.

The Maryland Department of Environment surveyed 1,000 facilities at the post to check for compliance, and the Army set a target date of 2010 for cleaning up the entire 72,000-acre post. That's a goal that may take as much as a billion dollars, since much of the Edgewood portion is listed as a priority Superfund toxic waste site.

Anyway, the county has been mostly silent for many years about the chemicals at APG. Yes, there have been objections to the proposed burning of obsolete mustard agent stored at the post. And there was a stink about sloppy handling of nerve gas agents tested at the antiquated Pilot Plant when three civilian managers were found guilty of federal crimes a few years ago.

But the whopping $400 million economic impact of the county's largest employer typically outweighed the measure of local governmental curiosity. Now, the county is changing, as its economic strength outside APG continues to grow and more residents look elsewhere for jobs.

And Harford officials are becoming more assertive in claims to environmental oversight of the things that go on in the Army's Forbidden City.

Last month, APG fessed up to being the cause of chemical contamination of the county's Perryman drinking water wells; Harford officials had insisted the military post was the source of the problem since it was discovered a year ago.

Now, some Harford officials are questioning the adequacy of environmental regulation of the APG incinerator.

They recently stopped the proving ground from dumping tons of ash from the incinerator at the county-owned Scarboro landfill, ending a practice of several years. No one claims that the ash contained toxic chemicals, however: It was not even tested for any such substance because the state has no requirement to do so.

That's the kind of thing that upset County Councilwoman Theresa Pierno, who believes the state program is not designed to effectively control the operations of the incinerator.

State inspectors don't check the air emissions and the ash residue from the furnace to see if they contain any nerve agents or other exotic toxics. The Army isn't forthcoming about the incinerator's operations, either, Mrs. Pierno said.

The proving ground insists that the incinerator, which consumes about 6 tons a day of equipment used in chemical testing, meets all state regulations and is not subject to county authority. The state notes that all the incinerator waste is decontaminated before burning.

nTC County officials, still angry over a series of state lapses that permitted ongoing pollution from private landfills in Harford to go unpunished, want the Army waste facilities included in the county's solid waste plan. Solid waste facilities have to be

approved in the plan to get state permits.

The APG medical waste incinerator and two landfills on the post will be included in the Harford plan that is now under review by the County Council. But the chemical test equipment incinerator will not, because hazardous waste is regulated solely by the state.

Mrs. Pierno wants the council to note that the chemical incinerator is inconsistent with the Harford solid waste plan; the action would be a sort of censure without enforcement, to express unhappiness at what the councilwoman sees as a lack of communication by the Army.

Does this mark a return to the past, of closed doors and retreat behind the hush-hush curtain of military secrecy? Hardly.

APG's recent commanders have emphasized environmental cleanup and control on the post, holding monthly briefings to inform the public of the status of such projects. Cooperation with the community has been a touchstone of their commands.

The installation is encouraging the public to participate in its extensive wildlife programs, and some 200 community members have so far volunteered.

Since the drinking well contamination was confirmed, APG has been supplying Harford with treated water from its own reservoir along Winters Run, while moving to clean up the ground water. The post also takes a good deal of Harford County's refuse for consumption in its waste-to-energy plant in the Edgewood area.

So the dispute over who should oversee the chemical test equipment incinerator is not likely to change the basic thrust of the cooperative effort of APG and the county. But it illustrates that the environmental interests of the two can be shared, without either one's ceding authority to the other.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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