Harford, Army debate water treatment

April 18, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

As Aberdeen Proving Ground prepares to start removing a suspected carcinogen from Harford County well water that supplies 12,000 homes and businesses, the Army and the county are at odds over who will pay what could be a multimillion-dollar cost of running a treatment system for decades.

Trichloroethylene, a common industrial solvent also known as TCE, was first detected more than two years ago in the county's Perryman well field, which supplies drinking water to half of the county's water customers.

The proving ground has acknowledged that an old firefighter-training area on Army property is one source -- but perhaps not the only source -- of the TCE.

Officials say water from the eight wells -- mixed before being pumped to homes and businesses -- has never contained more TCE than 2 parts per billion.

But two of the wells have at times contained nearly 10 parts per billion, according to county officials. And one has remained closed since late last year because of contamination. The federal safety standard for TCE in public water systems is 5 parts per billion.

Army officials say firefighters from the proving ground, the state and volunteer companies from throughout the region trained from the early 1960s until 1989 at the site believed to be the source of the TCE.

Officials say they believe waste oil -- containing waste TCE from motor pool operations -- was used to ignite practice fires in unlined, shallow pits at the training area.

"The Army [alone] really didn't put the TCE in the fire-training area," said Gary Holloway, a spokesman for the 72,000-acre research and weapons-testing installation. "I don't think anyone is clean."

Also, officials with both the Army and the county say that the TCE is being pulled to the county wells by the force of the water withdrawal. The two wells found to have TCE are about 1 1/2 miles southwest of the fire-training area.

Still, county officials say, the Army should pay the full cost of running the treatment system.

"We don't want to pay for anything," said William T. Baker Jr., county public works director.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, in a recent letter to the proving ground's commander, said "the operation and maintenance for a treatment system is a cost the customers of Harford County never anticipated having to fund."

Maintaining the charcoal filter will cost about $100,000 each year, said Naren Desai, an Army environmental engineer.

Proving ground officials have said that such treatment systems often run for decades.

"No one has turned off one of these systems yet," Mr. Desai said.

Officials representing the county and the Army say that negotiations are amicable.

"If there is resolution to be found, we will find it," Mr. Holloway said.

Rehrmann administration officials want to avoid appearances that the county and Army are combatants.

They say such hostility could cause Washington to cut money or jobs for the proving ground, which pumps about $1.4 billion into the region's economy each year and is Harford's biggest employer.

Administration officials also have commented little on three current investigations of the proving ground's environmental-protection efforts.

Last week, the administration and several County Council members failed to pass a resolution recognizing the proving ground's economic impact. Other council members criticized the attempt, saying that it ignored the proving ground's long-standing pollution problems.

County and Army officials, meanwhile, say they intend to have the charcoal filter operating by May 15 -- to ensure that the county has adequate water to meet higher demands during the summer.

The Army is supplying the county up to 900,000 gallons of water a day to make up for the closed well. Once the $1.2 million filter is installed, the closed well can be turned back on, officials said.

The Army is proceeding with a broader investigation of the TCE contamination and cleanup, which could cost more than $10 million.

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