Fine time at the proving ground

January 20, 1994

The $140,000 in fines levied against Aberdeen Proving Ground for environmental violations in handling toxic wastes won't make much difference to taxpayers, who will pay the Army's fines and get the money back in the treasury.

But that line item in the Proving Ground's budget will emphasize to the public that mismanagement of dangerous wastes is an ongoing problem at the Harford County post that has not faded despite five years of high-level talk and tens of millions of dollars for remediation.

The magnitude of locating and cleaning up the hidden witches' brews at the 72,000-acre chemical and munitions testing facility is enormous. The sudden shift from a military base whose activities were shrouded by secret wartime exigency to one whose environmental responsibility is exposed to public scrutiny has been an unsettling transition. The housecleaning won't be finished overnight.

Still, there is little excuse for keeping containers of poisonous dioxins and heavy metals at the post as long as 10 years, when the law requires removal within less than a year to an authorized disposal site. And although paperwork infractions cited by the state and federal environmental agencies may appear to be mere nitpicking, they speak to the essence of accountability for managing toxic wastes, on an Army base or in a private business.

None of the violations, initially uncovered a year ago during a government inspection, resulted in direct harm to the environment but reflected recurring problems at APG, the regulators noted.

The fines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of Environment were imposed under a year-old federal law that removes federal facilities from immunity to monetary penalties. After seven decades of secret military testing, APG was an easy, obvious target for regulators flexing their new legal muscles.

The $115,000 fine imposed by EPA on the Proving Ground pales beside the million-dollar penalties assessed against other federal installations for greater violations. The smaller $25,000 state fine is more disturbing, since the base was fined $5,000 for similar violations only last March.

APG claims the fines are unnecessary, that environmental cleanup is a base priority, and that it will spend $65 million on those projects this year. But money penalties, as the new federal law recognizes, can better focus attention on environmental problems and remedies than can a mound of reports and bureaucratic citations.

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