Unsettling questions in Odenton

November 28, 1994

Twenty-four years ago, Harold and Carol Lehtma bought a home on Old Waugh Chapel Road in Odenton, believing its rural setting made it an ideal place to raise their two children. Now, the Lehtmas have learned that the water they have been drinking is polluted with a weed killer.

State and federal officials are trying to find out how the herbicide atrazine got into the Lehtmas' well and the water supply of several of their neighbors. Tests on the Lehtma well showed that the level of atrazine present was more than 8 parts per billion; federal guidelines say drinking water should contain less than 3 parts per billion.

While officials continue to test wells in the area to determine how far the contamination has spread, families with the tainted tap water are drinking and cooking with bottled water supplied by the Army and the Maryland Department of Environment.

Although no one knows where the weed killer came from, suspicion has focused on a nearby landfill on the Fort George G. Meade army post. In December 1992, the Army identified landfills on the post as potential sources of pollution after tests revealed high levels of lead, benzene and pesticides in the nearby ground water.

For nearly two years, environmental officials and the Army filled out papers, traded reports and debated what to do about the problem. They did not get around to testing any of the private wells until September. Meanwhile, the Lehtmas and their neighbors were unknowingly drinking poisoned water.

Although experts have tried to reassure the residents that the quantity of atrazine present may not be enough to harm them, the Lehtmas have many questions.

How long have they been drinking an herbicide, which scientists say may cause cancer? Is the water to blame for Mr. Lehtma's epilepsy or the non-cancerous lumps in Mrs. Lehtma's breasts and legs? What if the source of the contaminant is never found? Who, then, will pay to clean up this mess? The Lehtmas are retired and say they cannot afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to hook into the county's water system.

Understandably, the Lehtmas are worried and angry. They and their neighbors are innocent victims of someone else's blunder.

It's time Fort Meade and environmental officials stopped procrastinating and came up with some answers.

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