Suspicion trails radar test plan

In Ocean City, distrust despite assurances

July 26, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - A Pentagon plan for testing a high-tech Patriot missile defense system radar at the municipal airport here has touched off a clamor of debate about radiation and potential environmental threats to humans and wildlife. But it's a flurry of rumors that has some folks in this resort town wondering just how far they can trust their government.

"It sounds crazy, but the more you look into it, the more you wonder," says Margaret Pillas, a city council candidate who's led the opposition to the radar installation. "This is a scared little town right now."

First, there was a closed-door city council meeting to discuss the deal allowing the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to try out a new radar network designed to better detect missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft that might threaten the East Coast.

Then came deep concern about exposure to low frequency radio radiation, questions that Ocean City area residents quickly found echoed in Internet postings by activists in other parts of the country.

The kicker, though, was the appearance of a mysterious, smooth aluminum ball, about the size of a beach ball, found last winter in a field near Berlin. In the past month, residents in town and in nearby West Ocean City heard widespread reports of low-flying, unmarked black helicopters. Some said they'd seen more silver-colored balls dropped from above the treetops.

Pillas and other opponents say they spent the better part of a month, vainly calling county, state and congressional representatives, as well as an assortment of federal agencies including the Pentagon and the Naval Surface Command Systems Center in nearby Wallops Island, Va., trying to get information about the aluminum sphere.

Many say they began to fear the whole thing might have something to do with biological weapons testing, maybe "star wars" satellite defense programs or something else.

Yesterday, officials at Patuxent River Naval Air Station acknowledged that the aluminum ball was probably released at the Southern Maryland base, part of a routine radar calibration conducted a dozen times a month for the past 30 years. The spheres are harmless and the Navy makes no attempt to retrieve them, according to a statement released by the station's public affairs office.

Equipped with helium balloons and parachutes, the spheres are launched and tracked by radar as the wind carries them. The 32-ounce devices, which are commonly launched by other military sites that use Precision Tracking Radar, have nothing to do with the Patriot radar test.

"All this wild speculation is going on because they came in here through the back door with this thing at the airport," says Hollis Martin, a longtime resident of South Point, near Assateague Island National Seashore. "We're worried that we're going to be the guinea pigs for whatever it is they're testing. There's plenty of evidence to suggest problems with microwave fields, cell phones, you name it."

Area residents turned out for a raucous city council hearing last week where military officials outlined their plans for testing the radar system they say is harmless to humans and wildlife farther than 400 yards from the radar.

"We're not sure about all these rumors either," says Lt. Col. Coennie Woods, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "I can say that we do not have any Blackhawk helicopters, and if there are any silver balls, they're not ours. In our view, there's nothing to be alarmed about with this radar test. To be honest, there will probably always be some people who aren't convinced."

The radar program, Woods says, came to Ocean City because "the geometry is perfect" to overlap an existing military radar at Wallops Island with a portable installation at the city airport and another unit on an AEGIS cruiser in the Atlantic.

The three radar units would track two Lear jets that would simulate threatening aircraft or missiles, Woods says.

All told, the operation would involve 40 to 50 people who would remain in Ocean City from Aug. 4 to Aug. 19.

Meanwhile, military officials are conducting an environmental assessment of the operation - a process that critics liken to putting the fox in the hen house - that is scheduled for completion by the end of this month.

"I can respect that the military isn't obligated to tell us everything, but they went about it so secretly you wonder what's going on," says Wendy Garliss, the West Ocean City woman who found the sphere and says she always suspected it had been launched by the weather service.

"I just don't think it's right for the city council to decide something like this," she says.

City officials admit they made a mistake by meeting first in executive session with the military.

"The biggest mistake was that the military came to us in closed session," says Councilwoman Nancy Howard.

"But the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. I'm not ready to just roll over for the government. They presented a sound, rational proposal. I'm convinced there's no health issue."

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