Neighbors raise alarm over Army test sites

December 20, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Patrick Pomeroy -- parent, scoutmaster, community leader and private investigator -- is wrestling with issues that strike at the core of his family's health and safety, his peace of mind and his trust in the government.

He feels betrayed, but he's not sure by whom. He knows that he probably wouldn't have built his white-painted brick home seven years ago on Cunning Circle, a quiet street east of White Marsh now dotted with plastic Santas and snowmen, had he known that the Army once tested lethal chemical warfare agents less than a mile away.

"I was blown away," said Mr. Pomeroy, a 43-year-old father of six. He and other residents of the 550-home Bay Country development and neighboring communities say they are just now learning about the Army experiments through a Harford-based citizens group, the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, that studies proving ground environmental issues.

"I don't know whether I am angry or hurt or what," he said.

"A lot of the people in the area did not know [the Army] was even down there," said his wife, Barbara, a 35-year-old insurance company supervisor.

The Pomeroys are among at least 5,000 families living within a two-mile radius of two former Army test sites -- Carroll Island and Graces Quarters -- where the government performed open-air experiments with hundreds of pounds of nerve agents, blistering agents, vomiting agents, "incapacitating" agents and smoke-producing chemicals.

This year, Aberdeen Proving Ground, which owns the sites and performed experiments there until 1972, began removing unexploded ordnance, digging up old waste pits and dismantling equipment, including a 36-ton steel wind tunnel used to test the chemical agents.

The Army gradually halted open-air testing after a 1968 incident in which 6,000 sheep died outside Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a nerve agent test site, although it never admitted full responsibility.

The cleanup of the Baltimore County sites, expected to cost nearly $60 million over the next 15 years, was the subject of a recent public meeting at Oliver Beach Elementary School. Community leaders will meet Wednesday with officials who have conducted environmental studies around the area.

The residents have many questions:

* Is contaminated ground water moving toward private wells?

* Are fish and crabs caught around the test sites safe to eat? Some fish caught around the proving ground were found to have sores and other abnormalities.

* Did home builders and real estate agents know of the Army work before they sold houses there? How will this affect the resale value of their homes?

* Should they swim in the waters near the test sites or other proving ground properties?

* Is security adequate to keep children from venturing onto the former test sites?

So far, there are few definitive answers.

The Army and state and federal regulators say they have not yet documented any public hazards but acknowledge that more sampling is needed.

The Bird River Civic Association, a coalition of 15 community groups, is distributing surveys asking whether residents are served by private wells and if they have experienced any of a number of illnesses.

Referring to the Army contamination, Del. E. Farrell Maddox, chairman of the Baltimore County legislative delegation, said, "People want to be assured that it's contained on the [federal] property."

Don Green, an Army environmental scientist who manages the cleanups at Carroll Island and Graces Quarters, said, "We're aware of the public's concerns and we're trying to address them. We have no agenda to hide anything or cover it up.

Army officials say initial sampling of ground water under the test sites has turned up high levels of industrial solvents and other chemicals, some of which are suspected carcinogens. But they have found no significant quantities of chemical warfare agents. Officials also say studies indicate that the ground water is flowing away from residential areas and toward the Chesapeake Bay or tributaries.

Although sores have been found on some fish in the area, including unexplained kidney lesions on fish in Gunpowder River, that does not mean the fish are unfit for human consumption, said Dr. Eric B. May, who coordinates fish health studies for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Pollutants entering the upper bay from numerous sources can weaken fish and make them susceptible to bacterial infections, Dr. May said.

"Finger-pointing is one hell of a difficult task," he said.

As more communities are developed nearby, the home of the Army's ordnance program and the center of its chemical warfare research effort is feeling squeezed by suburbanization.

The emotional questions of the Pomeroys and their neighbors are spreading to other communities around the proving ground. The 72,000-acre weapons-testing and research installation expects to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to study and clean up contamination that is a byproduct of four major wars.

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