When Uncle Sam fines Uncle Sam

February 16, 1994|By George Dail

LAST month, the Aberdeen Proving Ground was fined $115,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $25,000 by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

According to documents filed by the two agencies, the fines were levied after a series of inspections starting 13 months ago in which several violations were discovered in the Army's management and disposal of chemical wastes. No damage to the environment was alleged by either agency.

The charges by the EPA and MDE aren't surprising. The proving ground is in business to generate things with which to kill people or destroy the environment. Given that pursuit, there simply have to be some hazardous ingredients stored and byproducts, or wastes, produced. Further, if one generates hazardous materials and wastes in the stupendous quantities that are produced at Aberdeen (or at least were until the end of the Cold War), foul-ups are inevitable, human beings being what they are and bureaucrats being what they are.

John Yaquiant, an Aberdeen spokesman, said the proving ground had properly disposed of more the 35.5 million pounds of hazardous materials in 1993. In question, according to Mr. Yaquiant, is only 10,000 pounds of material -- a paltry quantity considering the millions of tons properly handled and the fact that the government will spend $65 million this year cleaning up the 72,000-acre compound.

But the fines are a puzzlement for another reason.

The idea of a fine is simple: If the malefactor has to pay a sum sufficiently punitive, then the fine will be both a penalty and a deterrent against future illegal behavior. If a fine of this magnitude were levied against you or me, or your business or mine, you or I would be hurt. But you or I would have to pay.

Even if the fine were levied against the largest, richest corporation in America, the stockholders would pay the penalty, and the executives, the operating officers, would face the ire of stockholders.

But in the APG affair, the people who allegedly disposed improperly of the 10,000 pounds of waste won't pay the penalty. Nor will their bosses. No heads will roll, no operating officers will .. have to face a board of directors.

No, the dummies who "own" APG, the "stockholders," you and I, will be left holding the bag. What's worse, most of us stockholders who support Aberdeen through our federal taxes really don't know what's going on, so we won't complain when our pocketbooks and wallets are raided to pay the fine. In fact, I suspect many of us will sing hosannas to the EPA and MDE, the people who are "cleaning up the mess."

That is amazing.

After all, if the two agencies are correct in their allegations, and APG has been criminally negligent in its management of hazardous wastes, who pays the penalties? Who gets plundered? Who pockets the booty?

The answer is obvious.

Since there is no hurt to the perpetrators, no penalty for the wrong-doers (if indeed there has been wrong-doing), then the government assessments against the Aberdeen Proving Ground are naught but fluff, drills in aggrandizement, puffs of importance and arrogance by the bureaucrats.

With you and I picking up the tab.

George Dail lives in Aberdeen and occasionally hosts talk-radio shows in Baltimore.

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