Army's study of underground pollutants near Fort Detrick is under way

February 06, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- While cows grazed nearby, Army Corps of Engineers workers used a metal detecting device yesterday to comb a field marked in grids of flapping yellow and red flags.

They were looking for changes in the earth below that could indicate metal containers filled with hazardous materials, which are believed to have been buried at the site near Fort Detrick decades ago.

Their efforts are part of a $500,000 study begun by the Army last TC week to target the source of chemicals polluting area drinking wells. The study is focused on portions of a 400-acre tract known as Area B, which has several disposal sites dating to World War II.

"We're not denying we're part of the problem, said Lt. Col. Robert Ryczak, Detrick's director of safety, health and the environment. "How much of the problem is what we're hoping to determine."

A 1977 Army environmental report stated Area B was likely to be contaminated with chemical wastes and that a "high potential" existed for the pollution to spread beyond the base because of underlying porous rock and a high water table.

Last fall, state environmental officials discovered traces of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the well water of homes along Montevue Lane, just southeast of Area B, which is separated from Fort Detrick by Rosemont Avenue and a strip of county-owned land. Widely used as a degreasing agent, TCE is known to cause cancer in humans.

Chemicals, acids and solvents were likely buried in a 20-foot-long trench known as the "acid pit," said Norman Covert, a Detrick spokesman. Construction debris and decontaminated materials were buried at other sites in Area B, he said.

"Old-timers have told us that acid solvents were poured in the pit in small amounts," Mr. Covert said. "But the pollution amounts we're seeing could come from as little as 1 gallon of TCE."

The state Department of the Environment is overseeing the Army's project and is investigating other possible sources of contamination from nearby existing and former businesses, such as a dry cleaner and service station.

"Certainly Fort Detrick is a likely source," said Michael Sullivan, a department spokesman. "It's documented there is TCE contamination on base. There could be other sources. We've turned up things like underground storage tanks but we haven't found any revelations."

Other chemical compounds have been detected in some of the 43 monitoring wells drilled in Area B. Test results from some wells dug last summer show TCE levels as high as 110 parts per billion, Mr. Sullivan said. The maximum safe level of either substance in drinking water is 5 parts per billion, according to the federal government.

During the next several weeks, workers from the Army Environmental Center, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, will do surface and ground water tests, take sediment

samples and conduct soil gas tests.

The Environment Department and Fort Detrick officials will discuss the study at a public meeting Feb. 25 at Frederick High School.

Frederick County Commissioner President Ronald Sundergill, noting that residents have been concerned about the pollution, said he was pleased the Army had begun the study.

"There's been a lot of concern from people who live near the area," he said. "I'm certainly looking forward to hear what the results of the study are."

Colonel Ryczak said the study should give the Army an idea of the extent of contamination and how to handle the situation. He said excavating the acid pit and trucking the debris to a secure disposal site off the base might be required.

Michael E. Burns, a private environmental and safety consultant who lives near Site B, said the Army is just beginning to tap what will be a mammoth project, costing millions of dollars.

"I'm delighted that after 16 years, the Army is doing something about looking for the materials," he said. "It's an outrageous story. It's in my back yard and they are responsible."

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