Worsened pollution blamed on Army delay EPA says Fort Meade failed to set timetable

July 29, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The federal crackdown on pollution at Fort Meade followed six years of pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency and repeated complaints of foot-dragging by the Army, according to letters and other documents filed about the dispute.

The delays might have allowed contamination to creep through ground water onto Tipton Airport, and the Army has had to drill through new construction to monitor ground contamination in one part of the Anne Arundel County base, documents show.

Investigations into the extent of the problem -- and whether the base should be listed among the nation's most polluted sites -- dragged on because the Army haggled over standards and lacked organization, EPA officials say.

It has been 10 years since Congress declared parts of Fort Meade surplus under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, and Tipton Airport still has not been transferred or leased, said Drew Lausch, Superfund project manager. "That is not a good record of accomplishment," he said.

Fort Meade -- named last week to the Superfund list of the nation's most environmentally hazardous sites -- has had a history of problems handling and disposing of hazardous materials.

In 1994, the Maryland Department of the Environment fined the base $10,000 for 82 counts of improper hazardous waste management dating to 1989. In September 1997, the base was cited again and fined $75,000 for burying more than 260 drums of oil at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO) on the post's southern border.

When the EPA made cleanup suggestions, Fort Meade responded slowly and, in some cases, did not respond at all, documents show.

L Post officials denied they responded slowly to EPA requests.

"Don't know that the comment response time was slow," the post's Environmental Office wrote in response to written questions. "All comments had to be reviewed and a response time provided."

No priorities made

One of the primary problems, according to the EPA, was that the Army did not have a master plan with a timetable for assessment and cleanup of potentially dangerous sites. It also had not prioritized sites for cleanup.

In a May 1998 letter to Anne Arundel County, Thomas C. Voltaggio, EPA deputy regional administrator, said that without a Superfund designation, his agency did not have the authority to push the Army to create timetables and the EPA had to "rely on jawboning to obtain necessary information" from the Army.

Paul Robert, head of Fort Meade's environmental office, said the Army did not establish a list because "they're all important to do, so we were trying to do as many as we could at once." The history of problems at DRMO is one example of how the Army typically worked, the EPA said.

According to Lausch and EPA documents, preliminary soil samples taken in 1991 at the DRMO, where a storage facility was to be built, showed high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and smaller amounts of lead, pesticides, and benzene and other fuel-related chemicals. Most of those chemicals are toxic, and some cause cancer in lab animals.

In 1994, just before construction was to begin, the EPA requested additional testing because of the pesticides and fuel residue found in the soil, according to the EPA.

"We said, 'You have to address all of our recommendations and comments -- at least respond to them,' " Lausch said. "That never happened."

Robert said he did not recall EPA ever asking for additional testing. The area was under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Department of Environment at the time, he added.

"EPA wasn't the lead agency on that site and still isn't the lead agency," Robert said. "If there were any discussions or comments on our actions, it would've been from MDE."

But under the federal law that governs day-to-day management of permitted hazardous waste, EPA has the obligation to investigate past hazardous waste disposal -- like that uncovered at DRMO, Lausch said.

"EPA was going to deal with the site anyway. We offered our comment with that in mind," he said.

A year later, construction workers unearthed 267 barrels -- some of them corroded and unlabeled -- of fuel, oil, chlorinated and nonchlorinated solvents, PCBs, lead and other metals and pesticides.

Site paved in 1996

Contamination had seeped into the soil, documents show. The Army removed the drums and soil -- treating the area for PCB contamination -- and continued with construction by paving over the site in September 1996 with the blessings of the state and EPA.

"We had several studies to take a look at that project site," Robert added. "None of them indicated what would happen in the future, which was the discovery of the drums."

But Lausch said the EPA has always been concerned about the possibility of contamination from other toxins, not just PCBs.

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