Environmental Problems at APG

March 20, 1993

The discovery in 1991 of a double-packed small vessel of lethal nerve agent in a building with two pressurized containment-seal systems at Aberdeen Proving Ground should surprise no one. After all, that's where chemical warfare substances were tested for decades under controlled conditions.

The metal container was found during a thorough two-year sweep of the infamous Pilot Plant laboratory building, which had been shut down in 1986, and was promptly reported to state environmental authorities. The state found no reason to issue a citation. The deadly material was then properly treated and safely stored. The water-like liquid did not leak; humans were never exposed.

Nearly 16 months after that matter of public record, some Harford officials wonder why the county was not told of the find. The answer is that the state Department of Environment has jurisdiction and there was no emergency or other reason to inform the county. Shortly thereafter, indeed, the state found that APG was in full compliance with its environmental orders on hazardous waste.

The episode confirms the poor control and accountability of operations at the Pilot Plant, which is now a hollow shell that will cost at least $30 million to demolish and decontaminate. Three civilian managers at that facility were convicted for violating environmental protection laws.

APG authorities swore in good faith that all warfare chemicals had been removed in 1986, not knowing of the overlooked vessel in a bucket hidden behind equipment on a dusty shelf. They were wrong but public safety was never compromised.

Much more important environmental issues face APG today. They involve everyday (less exotic) fuel and lubricants stored in hundreds of underground tanks that can leak and pollute ground water. The state and the Army this month signed an accord to accelerate the cleanup of those tanks.

In December, the Army acknowledged responsibility for buried solvents polluting Harford County drinking water wells. The state fined APG $5,000 this month for hazardous waste handling violations. The base's environmental protection chief was promptly reassigned for mismanagement.

Unexploded ordnance and buried chemicals are unearthed regularly at the sprawling facility. Tons of obsolete but lethal mustard agent are stored there without a disposal solution. The entire Edgewood area is a federal Superfund toxic waste site. Cleanup costs for the base will top $800 million.

Environmental problems with chemicals remain at APG. But it is important for the public and the Army to keep a steady eye on the more immediate threats to safety and the environment, dealing with them swiftly and effectively, rather than dwelling on the history of chemical warfare research that ended a decade ago.

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