Aberdeen cleanup trips alarms

March 27, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Aberdeen Proving Ground is planning what may be its most difficult and sensitive environmental cleanup: the removal of unexploded chemical weapons buried near hundreds of homes and three public schools in Edgewood.

Harford residents, most of whom are just learning about the discarded weapons, want answers to some tough questions:

Why has the county allowed construction of so many houses as close as 1,500 feet from the site? Why weren't residents told years ago about the testing area? How will they be protected during the cleanup?

Although the Army tests artillery and other weapons on the 72,000-acre base -- and residents can't help but hear the guns booming -- few are aware of the extent of Aberdeen's 80-year history as the military's center for chemical weapons research and training. Even the Army isn't entirely sure of the environmental scars that research has left.

It's one thing to have a shell explode, rattling windows of homes nearby, said Jefferson L. Blomquist, deputy county attorney for Harford. "It's another to have ordnance that could cause fatalities or serious injuries" from lethal chemicals, he said.

The central concern is safeguarding residents if an accident sends a toxic cloud drifting over Edgewood.

Mr. Blomquist is among Harford officials who discussed the 300-acre cleanup with the Army during a hastily arranged, private meeting last week.

Known by the Army as "the Nike site," the former chemical testing ground in Edgewood is one of three U.S. locations -- the others are in Colorado and New Jersey -- where discarded chemical weapons are buried so close to large civilian populations.

"It is very, very frightening," said Robert Hickey, a mortgage banker who heads an Edgewood civic group. The Hickeys have lived about three-fourths of a mile from the Nike site since 1984. Mr. Hickey's son attends Deerfield Elementary School, about a quarter-mile from the site.

The Army is sending 20,000 letters this week to residents in Harford and Baltimore counties alerting them to public meetings and telling residents about its plan to find and remove unexploded shells.

The site cleanup -- which also involves the cleansing of 95 million gallons of ground water contaminated by a toxic solvent apparently from a former Nike missile operation -- will begin this summer. Removal of the buried weapons will begin in about a year, the Army said. The total estimated cost is $8.5 million to $13.5 million.

County demands meetings

Since The Sun began inquiring about the cleanup several weeks ago:

* Harford officials have demanded that the Army hold public meetings as soon as possible to inform residents of the history of the Nike site and the details of its cleanup.

* Army and county officials have begun discussing how they would respond to an accident.

* The Army said it will search along the five-mile-long fence separating Edgewood and the base, beginning this week, to determine the number of buried chemical weapons.

Army documents show that another site near Edgewood, known as the Westwood area, also may contain buried chemical weapons.

Like many residents along Willoughby Beach Road in Edgewood, Joan Jenkins said she had no idea that her home for the past 18 years was a stone's throw from a former chemical weapons testing site.

"I'm amazed that they allowed so many homes" close to the Nike site, Mrs. Jenkins said. She's worried about evacuating her bedridden husband in an emergency.

Helen Richick, executive director of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, said residents have been kept in the dark too long.

"There is a major lack of communication between the Army, the regulators and the county," she said. Her group, based in Joppa, was created with a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the base's cleanup efforts.

Mr. Hickey, who said he learned of the Nike site from Mrs. Richick several weeks ago, thinks the cleanup could depress property values in the area. But the buried weapons must be removed, he said, and the protection of residents is paramount.

Some residents want to know exactly when the Army will be removing weapons so they can leave. Residents close to the removal operation "would be fools to stay in their houses" when the weapons are being excavated, Mr. Hickey said.

Evacuation in Washington

The Army faced a similar, but more serious, situation in January 1993 when a forgotten cache of World War I-era chemical weapons was found during the construction of a high-priced subdivision in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington. More than 100 residents were evacuated for up to a week while Army specialists removed several dozen shells containing a variety of military poisons.

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