Apologies and action at APG

March 02, 1993

From the beginning, the Army's planned construction of the "explosion pond" at Aberdeen Proving Ground has been directed more by the hard sell than by the hard look.

APG unilaterally declared the underwater munitions testing pond "environmentally noncontroversial" two years ago, to avoid making a detailed environmental impact statement. A key study on endangered bald eagles at the site was ignored. The test pond was sold as an "environmental enhancement" for creating new wetlands from muck dug up to make the crater. It would also prevent fish kills that occur in open bay testing of explosives.

Despite Army reluctance, the 60-acre project eventually was given an extensive environmental impact statement. The effects on rare eagle colonies were noted in that study. The "enhancement" sales pitch was discarded after it was found that the 100 acres of new wetlands would destroy prime rockfish spawning grounds.

Now state and federal regulators charge that APG has violated environmental laws -- including destruction of 20 acres of wetlands -- during the 150-foot-deep pond's construction. Acidic mud dredged to create an access channel from the Bush River to the pond was dumped on grassy wetlands and must be removed. The Army also failed to get approval for filling in a barge-landing area.

APG has been more forthcoming about its environmental problems since the "pilot plant" nerve gas scandal of the 1980s. But the post seems to be more given to apology than to serious environmental planning. On the pond project, which will test explosion effects on Navy submarines and ships, the Proving Ground has tried to avoid analysis of potential problems instead of solving them.

Granted, a large construction project involving so much protected water, wildlife and wetlands can easily run afoul of rules. But many public questions were initially raised about the pond; a thoughtful response by APG engineers would have resulted in more thorough preparation. Instead, the Army seemed more worried by slipping deadlines for completion; first, spring 1992, now, late 1993.

The recent disclosure that APG is under investigation by the Environmental Protection agency and the Justice Department for a series of alleged environmental problems (and new state fines issued for hazardous waste violations) adds to the concern that community relations efforts and apologies have been emphasized more than environmental planning and execution.

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