3 probes target alleged violations at APG Cleanups of toxic leaks investigated at proving ground

February 14, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

The Army and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency separately are conducting three investigations into alleged violations of state and federal rules governing toxic-waste cleanups and other environmental-protection efforts at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Army officials and sources say all three investigations focus on the management and operation of the proving ground's Directorate of Safety, Health and Environment. The office oversees compliance with environmental laws, disposal of hazardous waste and the cleanup of dozens of old waste dumps at the 72,000-acre Army weapons-testing and research installation in Harford County.

Sources also say the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore was contacted recently about the allegations and is looking into them. Officials there declined comment.

L Proving ground sources say the major allegations pertain to:

* Deficiencies and delays in the cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks holding petroleum products and the stockpiling of hundreds of tons of petroleum-contaminated soil.

* Delays in responding to leaking drains and underground pipes that carry industrial waste.

* Delays in processing hazardous waste and its removal from the proving ground, which, under federal law, cannot be stored on the installation for more than 90 days.

* Failure to remove underground tanks containing unknown chemical waste.

Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, the proving ground commander, and other proving ground officials said the allegations stem from "management-type" problems, but they asserted that the alleged lapses posed no threat to the environment or to human health.

"He's taking a hard look at everything" involving the environmental office, Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman, said of the general. "We're taking it seriously."

In response to questions from The Sun last week, proving ground officials issued a statement asserting that the underground storage tank program is not behind schedule and that oil-contaminated soil is not being stored in violation of state regulations.

The officials said that state and federal regulators were well aware of problems with leaking drains and pipes, and that the regulators think "our approach to fixing the problem is reasonable."

The officials also acknowledged violations in the storage of hazardous waste but said they were "administrative" and posed no threat.

Proving ground sources blame the alleged deficiencies and delays on the leadership of the environmental office.

"We used to be really proactive" about cleanups and compliance, one proving ground source said. "We know what's wrong, and we know how to fix it. We're just not allowed to [fix the problems]." Environmental-protection programs at the proving ground have been scrutinized since the mid-1980s, when Army investigators found serious lapses in the handling of hazardous waste, unsafe working conditions, insufficient procedures for responding to chemical accidents and inadequate safety inspections.

A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Justice Department led to criminal convictions of three top civilian executives for mishandling hazardous waste. The executives worked in the Army's chemical weapons research laboratories at the proving ground.

Prosecutors said the February 1989 convictions sent a warning that federal workers will be held individually accountable for complying with federal environmental laws.

One of the current Army investigations was ordered Jan. 5 by General Tragemann, who appointed Col. Nicholas Barron, a top assistant, as investigator and told him to report back in 45 days. Mr. Holloway said Colonel Barron is asking for an additional 30 days.

Another probe is being conducted by the Army inspector general's office at the Pentagon, which sent five investigators to the proving ground from Jan. 6 to Jan. 15.

Maj. Rick Thomas, an Army spokesman, confirmed that the inspector general's office is investigating the "environmental program" at the proving ground but said he could not provide details until the investigation is completed.

The third probe is by an enforcement arm of the EPA based in Denver, which sent more than a dozen officials to the proving ground for nearly two weeks ending early this month. One source said the EPA officials left with "copious" amounts of documents. EPA officials said they cannot confirm or deny any ongoing investigation.

Proving ground sources also say morale is low among many of 31 staff members working on environmental programs, causing at least five people to leave the office in recent months and many more workers to begin looking for other jobs.

Since April 1991, the chief of the environmental office has been Michael F. Flannery Jr., who came to the proving ground from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Mr. Flannery declined comment on the investigations.

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