A Joppa-based citizen group, backed by lawyers and toxicologists with the University of Maryland, wants the Army to pay for an independent health survey of thousands of residents in three counties around Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, a private watchdog group set up in the past year with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spelled out the proposal in a letter to the proving ground commander dated May 26.
The letter, distributed widely to state and federal health and environmental regulators and elected officials, said that "in the absence of a systematic investigation, the hundreds of thousands of citizens who work at [the proving ground] and live near the installation cannot be confident about the potential adverse health effects which may be posed by the environmental contamination produced during decades of weapons testing and other military activities."
Coalition representatives say they hope to meet with the Army officials in several weeks to discuss the matter.
They say a comprehensive health survey, which also would include studies of some of the installation's 15,000 workers, is the best way to respond to questions about whether activities at Aberdeen have harmed or are harming residents of Baltimore, Harford and Kent counties.
The coalition said the survey is justified because of anecdotal information, such as about diseased fish caught around the installation and concerns that cancers and other illnesses in workers and residents may be related to the proving ground.
"We owe it to the citizens to listen to them," said Dr. Katherine Squibb, a UM toxicologist who is working with the coalition, "so their questions can be put to rest."
The letter was prompted in part by correspondence between the group and the commander, Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann.
In an April 26 letter to the coalition, he said, "We have uncovered no evidence to suggest a relationship between [contamination] and a pattern of environmental health problems in our employees or local residents."
"Arguably, this is a chicken and the egg problem," said Rena Steinzor, director of UM's Environmental Law Clinic in Baltimore, which is assisting the coalition.
Army officials say no one has discovered patterns of illness; the coalition says no one has taken a sufficient look.
"You look for fire where you see smoke," said Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman. "We don't have smoke, at least that I can see."
He said the Army is not dismissing the group's call for a health survey. "It is certainly a proposal that we will discuss with them and explore," he said.
The 72,000-acre proving ground is conducting one of the most extensive and complicated environmental cleanups at any military base in the country. The work is expected to cost about $1 billion over 15 years.
The cleanup involves, among other things, mapping underground chemical plumes and their movement, studying fish, deer and other wildlife that is eaten by people, and looking for pollutants in streams and rivers that flow from the installation.
But, the coalition says, it could take years to turn up health problems by simply characterizing the extent of contamination. By looking closely at the workers and the residents, it argues, exposures could be stopped more quickly.
The coalition says an initial survey would cost about $500,000. It would involve consultation with physicians in the three counties, distribution of questionnaires to residents, and searches of medical data bases.
At the urging of the coalition, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the U.S. Public Health Service, recently examined public health concerns related to the proving ground.
"The available data do not indicate that humans are being exposed or have been exposed to levels of contamination that would be expected to cause adverse health effects," the agency said in a December report. "However, very few areas have been completely characterized."
The Army says it regularly monitors the health of about 2,000 employees who could come in contact with industrial chemicals, slightly radioactive depleted uranium munitions and chemical warfare agents.
"Workers should be a good indication of whether or not people are confronting any environmental risks as a result of the base," said Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
He said state environmental officials do not think a health study of thousands of residents around the proving ground is warranted. "Can you really gain valuable information from something as broad as what the [coalition] is proposing?"
Mr. Sullivan said the Army is making serious attempts to ensure that there is no off-site contamination endangering the public.