Activist keeps watch at Aberdeen Proving Ground

March 19, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The phone at Helen Richick's house in Joppa never stops ringing.

One caller wants to know if it is safe to buy a house near the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, one of the most polluted military bases in the country. A government official wants to talk about one of the dozens of waste-cleanup projects at the base. A scientist wants to discuss tests of fish and crabs for dangerous chemicals.

For the past two years, this self-described "mom" has served as executive director of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition. Her group, formed with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, monitors the progress of the Army's huge and difficult cleanup at the Harford County installation.

"Citizens need to know that Aberdeen Proving Ground is a toxic waste site in their back yard," she said. "There are hundreds of thousands of people living around the proving ground."

The federal grant received by the citizens group was given to increase public participation in the cleanup of "Superfund" toxic waste sites. Aberdeen has two Superfund sites: the entire 13,000-acre Edgewood area of the base and a smaller landfill in the Aberdeen area. The grant is used to pay the group's administrative costs and for experts to review the cleanup.

Mrs. Richick is well-known to officials at the proving ground. Some answer her calls and inquiries several times a week.

"She has been very aggressive, very inquisitive and very interested in what we do here," said Gary Holloway, Aberdeen's chief of public affairs. "Helen has done a good job in raising the consciousness of the residents to what we are doing out here. . . . In the long run, that will promote understanding."

The Army estimates that Aberdeen's cleanup will cost about $1 billion during the next 15 years. Mrs. Richick and others living around the 72,000-acre base worry about risks posed by leaking chemical dumps, firing ranges contaminated by mildly radioactive anti-tank weapons, millions of unexploded munitions and the disposal of obsolete chemical weapons.

Mrs. Richick, 44, is one of a growing number of volunteer environmental activists focusing on pollution at military bases. The activists have formed nationwide networks for communicating with each other by phone, fax and electronic mail.

A lifelong Harford resident and a graduate of Aberdeen High School, Mrs. Richick takes classes at Harford Community College, working toward a degree in environmental sciences. She also cares part time for a woman with chronic medical problems. She and her husband, Rob, a criminal investigator with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, have a 22-year-old son.

In addition to serving as director of the Aberdeen coalition, which has 2,000 members, Mrs. Richick is treasurer and a board member of the Military Toxics Project, a citizen group monitoring post-Cold War environmental cleanups at U.S. bases.

The walls of her small home office are papered with planning calendars, maps of Harford showing the locations of water supplies, geologic formations and major dump sites. Another map shows worrisome military sites across the country.

The coalition is publishing the first edition of its newsletter this week. It is called Coming Clean.

Mrs. Richick also is seeking grants to continue to monitor Aberdeen's cleanup.

She said her efforts and those of others in the coalition are paying off. Less than a decade ago, there virtually was no communication between the Army and people living around the weapons-testing and research installation.

"We feel we've really made a difference," said Mrs. Richick, as the muffled sounds of Aberdeen's artillery testing, two miles to the east, are heard inside her home.

Now, the Army hand-delivers boxes of technical reports to Mrs. Richick's house. She sends many of the documents to a lending library established at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where scientists and graduate students provide advice to Mrs. Richick's group.

Her group has prodded the Army to do a better job of warning boaters and residents of the dangers of unexploded munitions around the base, she said. The Army estimates that there are at least 5 million potentially explosive shells on and around the base from more than 75 years of testing.

And, she said her group has forced the state to expand testing for pollutants in edible fish and crabs caught near the proving ground.

The contamination of Aberdeen has been decades in the making. Mrs. Richick knows her work is only beginning. But the dividends will come for many years, too.

"I'm doing it for my grandchildren and other children," she said.

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