Civilian airport opening at Fort Meade delayed

September 13, 1995|By Dan Morse and Shirley Leung | Dan Morse and Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writers

Concerned about unexploded artillery shells and environmental problems, officials from Howard and Anne Arundel counties will postpone the scheduled Oct. 1 civilian opening of Tipton Airfield at Fort Meade -- and as many as 300 local pilots will be kept waiting.

"We've waited eight years, what's another six months?" said Jane Gray, vice president of the Howard County Pilots' Association, after learning yesterday that the scheduled opening would be delayed for another six to 18 months.

The Department of Defense in 1988 ordered the Army to give up the airfield as part of a plan to cut military spending. Anne Arundel and Howard counties have agreed to lease the 366-acre site from the Army and operate it as an airport while the Army removes the hazards.

The counties later would become owners of the airport and form a bi-county authority to operate it.

The military airfield is due to close Oct. 1. This summer, the Army was supposed to have removed an undetermined number of unexploded shells. County officials went ahead and hired an airport manager.

But during this time, county officials became concerned about liability issues. They announced yesterday that the Army had not done enough to remove potential explosive and environmental hazards at the airfield, a process that could take many more months.

"We didn't want to get involved in running an airport where there are some unexploded [shells] around," said Gerald Von Mayer, Howard County's project manager for the airport.

"It could be anything from a rifle bullet to a bazooka shell to a tank shell. . . . We don't know exactly what's there."

Ted Hartman, coordinator of the Fort Meade base closure, said he understood the counties' concerns.

"When you're dealing with environmental issues, you have to be certain," he said.

Of particular concern is an old aircraft hangar known as Hangar 90, which contains asbestos floor tiles and most likely lead-based paint.

Environmental Protection Agency officials are concerned about the hangar's drainage system because some of its runoff goes into the Patuxent River, said Drew Lausch, the EPA project manager at Fort Meade.

The unexploded shells in the area could date back to World War I training. Army officials are searching their records and newspaper stories to determine exactly what was fired at the time.

Officials also are concerned about three landfills at the airfield and about the time and effort necessary to clean up the site.

"You've got two counties," Mr. Von Mayer said. "You've got the Army. You've got the EPA. You've got the MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment]. You've got many players."

The airport at Fort Meade could become one of the busiest in Maryland, with as many as 188,000 flights a year and 300 small and commercial airplanes based there, according to a Philadelphia aviation consulting firm hired by both counties.

Mr. Von Mayer said the airfield is a good project for both counties because finding a site for a new airport is difficult -- a $10 million investment.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport has become too busy for small aircraft, he added.

Sam Minnitte, Mr. Von Mayer's counterpart in Anne Arundel County, agreed.

"It's still a great project," said Mr. Minnitte. "We want to pursue it. But we want to do it in a time frame that allows us to do the right thing."

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