Aberdeen could get bad name

April 24, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Aberdeen Proving Ground, battling to stay economically healthy despite widespread chemical contamination and nationwide military cuts, fears it may be saddled with an environmental scarlet letter -- a big red "S."

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering declaring the installation's 57,000-acre Aberdeen area a Superfund toxic waste site.

The Army, local officials and some Maryland congressional representatives say that such a designation is unnecessary and that it could slow a continuing cleanup. They also fear that such a stigma would cause Pentagon planners to steer jobs and contracts away from the huge research and weapons-testing center in Harford County.

But environmental groups say a Superfund designation would force the Army to spend more money and move faster to clean decades-old chemical dumps and a weapons-testing range "contaminated" with tons of slightly radioactive armor-piercing munitions.

A Superfund designation for the entire Aberdeen area would be more "logical" than designating a number of distinct Superfund sites, because it may save money and manpower, said James McCreary, a regional EPA official in Philadelphia.

The regional office hopes to recommend a decision to EPA's Washington headquarters within several months.

The proving ground's 13,000-acre Edgewood area, for 75 years the Army's major chemical warfare research center, already has been designated a Superfund site, one of nine in Maryland.

A Superfund designation generally means a site is among those most in need of cleanup.

The proving ground's Aberdeen area would be the largest Superfund site in the state.

In a letter sent Thursday to Peter Kostmayer, the EPA's regional administrator, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she was "very concerned about the perception of danger that this designation would apply to large tracts within Aberdeen that are unrelated to the contamination."

The Maryland Democrat and other officials wonder whether large projects, such as an $80 million research laboratory the Army plans to start building at the proving ground this week, would come to Aberdeen if the entire area were designated a Superfund site.

"We have to tread very delicately on this," said George Harrison, a spokesman for Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

With nearly 15,000 military and civilian workers, the installation is Harford's largest employer. Annual payroll and contracts total $1.6 billion, nearly the same economic impact as the port of Baltimore.

"I see no benefit to it whatsoever," Ronald Nelson, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said of a Superfund designation.

The nationwide Superfund cleanup program has been criticized as overly bureaucratic and ineffective.

"It's a study-it-to-death program," Mr. Nelson said.

Recently, the proving ground acknowledged that an old firefighter training site in the Aberdeen area was the source of trichloroethylene that had leaked into Harford County's Perryman well field, which supplies drinking water to 80,000 residents.

The proving ground has begun removing the solvent, which is a suspected carcinogen. But the Army and the county still are negotiating who will pay the multimillion-dollar cost of operating the treatment system.

"I think there are other areas that are being overlooked," said Helen Richick of Joppa, who heads a citizens group monitoring the Aberdeen cleanup. "We ought to look at them quickly."

Mrs. Richick's group, the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, and the Maryland Safe Energy Coalition of Baltimore, which monitors radiological issues, have asked the EPA to make the Superfund designation.

"We're already maxed out in terms [of cleanup] money," said Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman. "Our goal is to move ahead and clean up this post as expeditiously as possible."

The proving ground is budgeted to receive $66 million this fiscal year to study and clean old chemical dumps, former munitions-production sites and other contaminated areas. Under Army policy, no single installation may receive more than 10 percent of the service's entire cleanup budget.

Aberdeen is one of two Army installations in the nation receiving the maximum cleanup dollars. Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver is the other.

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