Army, community activists edge toward battle over plans for sealing Edgewood landfill

March 15, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

A battle is looming between community activists and the Army over the future of a 55-year-old Edgewood landfill, which the military is hoping to cap this fall without knowing for certain what is buried there.

A watchdog group, Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, says the Army is moving too quickly on its plans to seal the landfill, at a cost of about $1.8 million.

"We want to know what's in that landfill before we agree to any plan to seal it shut," said Helen Richick, executive director of the coalition. She said the landfill could contain unexploded chemical weapons or materials too dangerous to leave buried close to heavily populated Edgewood. But Gary Holloway, chief of public affairs at the base, said, "We are not planning on capping it and walking away."

The estimated $1.8 million cost of capping the landfill also would pay for 30 years of maintenance. Ground wells at the site would be monitored to make sure no harmful chemicals flow from the site, and no trees or brush would be allowed to grow because roots could breach the seal, he said. Both sides agree that little is known about the landfill, which takes up less than an acre and is believed to be about 8 feet deep. It is on the Nike site in the Edgewood Area of the proving ground, which is named for the missiles stored there during the Cold War.

The 300-acre Nike site, which the Army plans to sweep for unexploded weapons this spring, has long been a concern of Mrs. Richick. Her group is funded by an annual $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant.

The Army believes that the landfill was used for construction rubble during World War II. It has been found to contain small amounts of asbestos, but also may contain live munitions. "Anytime we deal with anything at Edgewood, we assume the worst," Mr. Holloway said.

The safest way to deal with the landfill and any potential hazards, he said, is to leave it alone sealing it with an impenetrable plastic barrier topped by tons of earth.

But Katherine Squibb, a professor of toxicology at the University Maryland who works with the Superfund coalition, said that may not be the case.

"The landfill needs to be studied more," she said. "It might need to be moved to another site which specifically handles hazardous waste. On the other hand, it may not even need to be capped."

The Army never has adequately explained why it considers capping the site without exploring it the best solution, she said.

Mr. Holloway said that excavating the site and moving its contents would cost between $3.8 million and $9.6 million an alternative deemed too expensive for the cleanup funding available.

He also said it would be foolish to spend so much money cleaning up a site that never can be used for anything else. The Nike site, which includes the landfill, will always be off-limits because of the possibility of unexploded chemical weapons rising to the surface after every spring thaw, he said.

The base could get approval within several weeks from EPA on the plan to seal the landfill, Mr. Holloway said. If approval is granted, the proving groundwould make the plan available for 45 days of public comment before moving forward, he said.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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