Critics say building at Meade is off base

Residents, officials say archives site is an `eyesore'

April 09, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

It has been called an eyesore, a high-tech bombshell, a monument to the arrogance of Congress.

Harsh words for a bookshelf.

But the $4.7 million wall rising along Route 32 at the Fort Meade Army base in Anne Arundel County is no ordinary bookshelf. Its story is more one of a building in a bubble, built by an agency exempt from the laws others must follow and seemingly oblivious to the ire of its neighbors.

Built by the Architect of the Capitol as part of the Library of Congress, the building is more than 20 miles from both agencies' Washington nerve centers.

It is on a military base that is also a Superfund site, yet neither the Army nor the Environmental Protection Agency has control over it.

And though its architects have restored Capitol Hill's most cherished buildings -- among them the U.S. Capitol -- they have offended military and civilian residents with shark-fin ductwork and a high concrete wall.

"They ought to be ashamed, letting that thing go in the way it looks," said Michael Fox, a senior county planner on the Restoration Advisory Board, a government and citizens group monitoring environmental cleanup at the base.

The building is one of 13 the AOC, the real estate arm of Congress, has planned for its 100-acre parcel at Fort Meade. It's part of a 50-year project to move part of the library's overflowing collection -- 17 million books at last count -- into high-density, climate-controlled storage. Each building will hold 2 million books.

`Laws that don't apply'

The AOC says it wants to be a good neighbor at Fort Meade, its first project away from Capitol Hill and the library's only major one in two decades. The architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, calls the structure "respectable." He does not apologize for the agency's exemption from certain regulations, saying "There are laws that don't apply to the legislative branch."

But to some, that distinction is the ugliest part. They worry it has eroded the public trust the Army has worked hard to foster in coming clean with residents about hazards on the base. To them, the building sends a message that, for its own needs, Congress excuses itself from the law.

"Their attitude is, `We can do what we want,'" said Zoe Draughon, head of the Restoration Advisory Board. "Congress has made a loophole so they don't have to follow their own laws."

The story of how the giant bookshelf came to own an island on an Army base dates to 1988, when Fort Meade became a target of Department of Defense downsizing. Under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, Fort Meade gave up 8,000 acres, about two-thirds of its property. The Interior Department took 7,600 acres for the Patuxent Research Refuge. The remaining 400 acres -- Tipton Airfield -- was designated for a county airport.

The Library of Congress was desperate for space. As the nation's copyright repository, it takes in two copies of all copyrighted material. On average, it archives 7,000 documents daily, storing overflow in scattered, rented warehouses. Administrators wanted to build a home to preserve the collection with moisture control. It had to be near the Capitol, so staff could fetch material for members of Congress.

Fort Meade was a logical site -- it was close, and giving away land could curry favor with Congress, which had the base on the chopping block. "The Library of Congress came to Meade and said, `Given what you plan to do, and what you have left, where would you consider giving us 100 acres of land?'" recalls Leayle G. Galiber, Fort Meade's master planner.

They settled on the site near Route 32, once an old motor pool and railroad bed. In October 1993, Congress passed a law requiring that Fort Meade transfer 100 acres to the AOC. Being the host of non-Army agencies is common at Fort Meade, where the EPA and National Security Agency are tenants. But transferring land outright to another federal agency is rare, Army officials said. Even as Fort Meade evolves into a military office campus, the relationship with the AOC is an anomaly.

"That land is as much Fort Meade's as Seven Oaks is," said Galiber, referring to the residences across the street from the base.

But the Army hasn't entirely washed its hands of the land: It is responsible for cleaning contamination found there. Fort Meade's garrison commander, Col. Michael J. Stewart, said that's just part of "good stewardship."

Army stewardship hasn't always received high marks. In 1995, workers found 260 drums seeping contaminants buried at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, next to the library's parcel. The EPA fined the base $75,000.

The next year, the EPA named the base to the Superfund list, marking it a priority and taking over cleanup authority from the Army.

Contamination still turns up in unexpected spots. Engineers are trying to determine how traces of carbon tetrachloride, a solvent once used in dry cleaning, seeped into monitoring wells north of a post landfill recently.

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