Study faults management of APG waste Investigation cites potential for violations

May 16, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Aberdeen Proving Ground's environmental program i seriously understaffed and has been bogged down by poor management and internal strife, raising "immense concern" about compliance with environmental laws, a three-month investigation concludes.

The findings, contained in more than 500 pages of documents obtained by The Sun under the federal Freedom of Information Act, come four years after the criminal convictions of top managers at the Army post on felony charges of mishandling hazardous waste.

"Serious environmental violations will occur" if more inspectors, engineers and scientists are not hired in the environmental office, concluded Col. Nicholas Barron, the investigating officer RTC and a top aide to the proving ground's commander.

"This is of immense concern," Colonel Barron wrote in a 13-page summary of his findings.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, is scheduled to discuss the findings of the investigation publicly for the first time tomorrow, at a monthly update on environmental issues at the Harford County weapons-testing and research installation.

The investigation's findings notwithstanding, he said the effort to clean up old dump sites and avoid new environmental damage at the 72,000-acre installation is "fundamentally sound."

Among the other findings in the documents:

* Maryland Department of the Environment inspections, including one in the last two weeks, have revealed serious

violations of sediment- and erosion-control laws at nearly every visit to the huge "Superpond" test facility. Last July, the threat of civil fines from the state prompted an Army environmental official to write in a memo that he was "tired of begging for compliance" at Superpond, which has been under construction since February 1992.

The 150-foot-deep, $22 million pond for underwater test explosions is being built by the Army's Combat Systems Test Activity on the banks of the Bush River. In a March 10 memo, General Tragemann told the commander of the test unit to "shift the focus of your organization's thinking."

* A year's supply of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used to maintain the installation's golf course had been "haphazardly and randomly jammed" into a warehouse without regard to the potential for serious injury that could result from a fire or spill. Some of the hazardous substances were 20 or more years old. No inventory of the chemicals had been made as of last summer, and medical and fire personnel had not been informed of the potential hazards of a spill or fire at the warehouse, as required.

A proving ground spokesman said last week that the deficiencies have since been corrected.

* The November 1991 discovery of a container of deadly nerve agent in a laboratory for chemical warfare research that had been closed five years earlier became a source of strained relations between proving ground environmental inspectors and the managers of the research unit, called the Chemical and Biological Defense Agency.

The discovery of the nerve agent and other waste, first reported in The Sun last March, was not promptly reported to state and federal authorities, even though the laboratory, called the Pilot Plant, was the focus of the 1989 criminal trial of three top managers in the chemical warfare research program.

"The ultimate irony of that incident is that instead of an investigation to determine the cause of the lack of accountability for such a large quantity of abandoned and unsecured [nerve agent], a committee was formed to iron out personality difficulties," Michael F. Flannery Jr., the former chief of the proving ground's environmental office, wrote in a Dec. 18, 1992, memo to General Tragemann.

Mr. Flannery's scathing eight-page memo prompted the general to order the investigation. In the memo, Mr. Flannery alleged a "continuation of the same mismanagement which ultimately resulted in the Pilot Plant convictions," and he said he was being threatened with removal for raising "controversial" environmental concerns.

The Pilot Plant trial, which received national attention, was regarded as one of the Justice Department's most important environmental prosecutions because it meant individual federal employees could be held criminally responsible for violations. The felony convictions of the three managers, all of whom received probation, was a warning to the Pentagon and every military installation in the country.

Mr. Flannery was relieved of his duties last February and now holds a staff position in another environmental office at the proving ground. The recently concluded investigation found that Flannery "failed to manage and failed to lead."

During an interview last week, General Tragemann said Mr. Flannery's removal "was not prompted by any sort of whistle-blowing but his inability to do the job."

The investigation ordered by the general is one of three such probes begun this year.

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