Slow-moving Army spurred EPA Fort Meade cleanup expected to be more thorough, take longer

July 24, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers TaNoah Morgan, Heather Dewar and Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

Concerns that the Army has been taking too long to clean up pollutants and ammunition fouling the 5,415 acres of Fort Meade helped push the Environmental Protection Agency to list the base among the nation's most polluted sites.

Fort Meade's designation as a Superfund site this week means the EPA, not the military, will be in charge of decontaminating the base. The good news for Fort Meade's neighbors is that extra steps will be taken to assure their water is safe to drink.

Essentially, the EPA is taking control because the Army was dragging its feet. "I think they could have been doing it much faster than they're doing it now," said Abe Ferdas, director of hazardous site cleanup for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region.

Zoe Draughon, co-chairwoman of a group of residents and Fort Meade personnel reviewing the cleanup, agreed. "It needs to be taken care of in an open and efficient way," she said. "The Army has been doing cleaning, it's just taken forever."

The Army will continue removing tainted soil and unexploded bombs, as it has for nearly a decade. But with the EPA in charge, officials said, more of the 81-year-old base also will be tested for pollution.

Oddly, though, the cleanup may now end up taking even longer because of delays during the transition to EPA oversight, and the likelihood the EPA's cleanup will be more extensive.

To date, the Army has focused on four sites, including two landfills and a defunct laundry center. The EPA wants to test soil and water on scores of other parcels to determine if they, too, are polluted. Furthermore, the EPA will now require more extensive testing of ground water that feeds area residents' wells.

Preliminary testing of that water has found some contamination, and some homes have been switched to Anne Arundel County's public water system or have been supplied with bottled water.

"That's not to say that all of a sudden things have become worse," said Drew Lausch, the EPA's project manager at Fort Meade. "But it becomes a more comprehensive assessment of environmental contamination at Fort Meade."

Draughon has long called for that assessment. One of the four locales the EPA has pinpointed for attention is where the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office now stands. While constructing a warehouse there in 1995, workers dug up 267 drums of oil and fuel. Environmental surveyors hired by the Army later found that the drums had leaked deep into the soil and a mix of chemicals was detected in soil and ground water.

However, before more research could be done about possible dangers, the Army had paved the site.

EPA officials do not believe any residential drinking water has been contaminated by the chemicals, and don't think there's any immediate health risk from pollution at the base.

"We have the ability to take immediate action if there is an acute or chronic risk to public health, and we don't believe there is," said Tom Voltaggio, EPA deputy regional administrator for Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states.

However, decades of accumulated fuels, solvents, pesticides and unexploded ordnance may have tainted a portion of the base that's scheduled to be transferred soon to Anne Arundel County and turned into a civilian airport: the 366-acre Tipton Airfield property. Re-testing for pollution on that property could hold up the transfer, the EPA said.

"We still have unaddressed areas there," Ferdas said. "We're just not going to let them take something that's not cleaned up." For just that reason County Executive John G. Gary had opposed the Superfund designation.

"We tried to make sure that Tipton was excluded from that," Gary said. "I don't see it having an effect other than the typical bureaucratic red tape with the Pentagon."

The cost of cleaning up Fort Meade cannot be calculated until the EPA can conduct further tests that will determine what needs to be cleaned up and how.

Already the Army has spent $46 million on cleaning up unexploded bombs, spilled fuel and other contaminants. It has $20 million more on tap. But costs will likely soar well above that $66 million, EPA officials said. The Army will pay for all the cleanup costs.

EPA spokesman Lauren Mical said Superfund site cleanup time averages 18 years.

Because work is already under way at Fort Meade, it could go faster there, Voltaggio said. Tipton Field and other parts of the property that have development potential would be cleaned up first, he said. "The first chunks could be done in a few years, but before the whole thing is done it could be 10 years," Voltaggio said.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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