EPA adds Meade to list Superfund designation puts base cleanup under closer oversight

Decades of pollution

Soil contaminated

some fear ground water is in danger

July 23, 1998|By Neal Thompson, TaNoah Morgan and Heather Dewar | Neal Thompson, TaNoah Morgan and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

Fort Meade, whose recent transformation from atrophied Army base to bustling federal campus has been touted as a success story in the era of military downsizing, was designated as one of the worst pollution sites in America yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fort Meade officials and the EPA announced that the 80-year-old base had been added to the Superfund list of the nation's most environmentally hazardous sites.

At least four contaminated parcels are the culprits, though there may be more, the EPA said.

Army and EPA officials stressed that they've long known about Fort Meade's toxic-waste sites and that a cleanup has been under way for nearly a decade.

Yesterday's decision will give EPA greater oversight of the continuing decontamination, for which $46 million in federal money has been spent to dig up soil tainted with solvents, pesticides and spilled fuel.

"My biggest concern is: I don't want people to think there's green ooze bubbling up from Fort Meade," said Don McClow, a spokesman for the base. "We've been working on this cleanup project for years."

A major concern is the potential for ground water contamination.

EPA officials said they don't believe there is any risk to people, that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention would conduct a study of possible risk to people working on or living near the base. That was good news to some residents.

"There has been evidence of ground water contamination. It needs to be watched," said Zoe Draughon, co-chairman of a group of residents and Fort Meade personnel reviewing the Army's cleanup.

"There are people in this area who have wells. EPA can now take charge and make sure they are cleaned properly.

"There's no high level of contaminants that they've found," she said, "but there's things we don't know. Old shells were shot deeply into the earth. Some of them are filled with TNT. What if they don't surface? What if they break up in the ground? No one knows."

Superfund "means we'll now have the oversight we need to make sure [cleanup] is done efficiently and appropriately," she said.

Still, there is a stigma that comes with being dubbed a Superfund site, and the impact of that designation has at least the potential to stain the base's growing reputation as a good home for federal and private tenants.

"Superfund designation has a negative connotation to it," said Ron Nelson, land-use environment officer for Anne Arundel County, which wants to build a new airport at Fort Meade.

"It carries with it a stigma. It could hurt in the short run, because people could look at it and say, 'Oh, I'm not bringing my business to a Superfund site.' "

The 5,415-acre base's main tenant is the National Security Agency, which is Maryland's largest employer. But over the past decade -- and especially in recent months -- the base has attracted new businesses and jobs.

The EPA will become one of the new tenants when it consolidates two smaller laboratories and moves in this year. And the Library of Congress will erect several 8,000-square-foot storage buildings at the base.

Other contributors to the mini-boom include the Defense BTC Information School, which opened a high-tech, $30 million instructional building this year where it will train 4,000 military journalists annually.

Lauren Mical, a spokesman at EPA headquarters in Washington, said the decision to add the base to the Superfund list should make more money available faster, by boosting the project closer to the top of the Army's spending priorities.

But EPA officials acknowledge the downside: making potential developers or tenants leery of getting involved with a Superfund site to avoid the potential for unexpected costs of hidden contamination, which can be astronomical.

Fort Meade is one of nine new sites to be added to the Superfund list. Andrews Air Force Base has been proposed for inclusion, the EPA announced yesterday.

Tom Voltaggio, EPA deputy regional administrator for the mid-Atlantic area, said Andrews and Meade have the same problem: ground and water contamination with a mixture of fuels, solvents, pesticides, munitions and other potentially dangerous substances, the residue of many decades of military operations.

But the Army can't sell any part of the property or sign a long-term lease on it until that parcel has been cleaned up, Voltaggio said.

Voltaggio said one of the Fort Meade sites that may be contaminated is the 366-acre Tipton Airfield property, which is slated to become a civilian airport. Parts of the old airfield are tainted with solvents, fuels and other volatile chemicals -- the residue of aircraft maintenance work done there.

"There is some level of contamination there, but not of such significance that it would prevent its use," Voltaggio said.

Nevertheless, he said, "I don't think Anne Arundel County was really happy about its going on the [Superfund] list. It's hard to get past the so-called stigma."

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