Study to assess APG pollution

November 21, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Aberdeen Proving Ground is embarking on what is widely described as the most comprehensive effort at any U.S. military installation to determine the harmful effects of decades of pollution on all living things.

While human health has been the focus of toxic waste cleanups nationally, the trend today is to investigate damage to the full spectrum of life.

The proving ground's five-year, $5 million study will look at the health of the entire food chain, from tiny "mud bugs" that help form its base to plants, fish, birds and mammals.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Army Corps of Engineers' Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss., and state and federal agencies will participate.

More than 700 pollution sources are believed to exist on the 72,000-acre weapons-testing and research installation -- from solvents and other conventional contaminants to exotic waste, including captured chemical munitions.

The study will help guide cleanup efforts expected to cost about $1 billion. Researchers hope the findings will help determine which areas require cleanup first and where more extensive cleanups could do more harm than good by dispersing `f pollutants.

This year, the proving ground began initial sampling of the bottom of the Gunpowder River, a major bay tributary. In all, 21 areas on land or in waterways will be studied.

Various organisms, including water fleas and fish, will be subjected to contaminated water or sediment from study areas to determine whether pollutants make them sick, decrease reproduction or kill them.

"Reference sites" will be studied throughout the upper bay so the relative health of wildlife on the proving ground can be compared with ecological conditions in the region.

For several years, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has been investigating unexplained ulcers, lesions and other maladies among fish, crabs and other species in the upper bay.

No research has fingered the proving ground's contaminants as the cause.

John Paul, an Army ecologist, described the proving ground as the ultimate living laboratory. It not only has a "whole panoply" of pollutants to deal with, but there is an incredible diversity of life.

About 65 percent is undeveloped, consisting of extensive woodlands, wetlands and shoreline along the bay and its tributaries.

More than 120 species of birds, more than 50 species of fish, 40 species of mammals, and 40 species of reptiles and amphibians live on or around the proving ground.

"A study like this could actually enhance cleanups" across the country, said Tara Gilmartin, a national organizer with the Military Toxics Project, a nationwide citizen group based in Litchfield, Maine. "It's a much more holistic approach to finding out what's going on."

Army scientists and outside officials say that the only similar research approaching the scale of what is planned by the proving ground is a project at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, where the Army made chemical warfare agents and where pesticides were manufactured commercially. But officials say the diversity of life at the arsenal is not as great as at the proving ground.

Recently, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry completed two public health studies for the proving ground, using existing data.

The report for the Aberdeen area of the installation concludes that there is not enough information to "indicate whether humans are being or have been exposed" to dangerous levels of contaminants. The other study, for the Edgewood area, that was released last week reported the same conclusion.

In a separate project, Dr. Katherine Squibb, a University of Maryland toxicologist, said the college is seeking a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences for more extensive studies of human health that may involve taking urine and blood samples from some residents or proving ground workers.

The new Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition and Dr. Squibb, who is working with the group, say people should be advised not to eat fish from around the installation until more is known about whether they are contaminated.

Helen Richick, a Joppatowne resident and executive director of the coalition, said of the new study: "I'm glad the Army is doing it, but it's about time."

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