Base to get Army honor

Fort Meade receiving award for cleanup of its environment

`We had the same goal'

Site overcame fines, friction in 1990s to earn recognition

April 30, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Army officials at Fort Meade spent much of the 1990s in battle with environmental regulators, but recently they called a truce. And this week the Army's top brass will honor the base with a cleanup award.

Fort Meade's environmental team will head to the Pentagon on Wednesday to accept the Secretary of the Army's Fiscal 2000 Environmental Award for excellence in environmental restoration. The award honors the base's engineers for their efforts to clean up the 5,415- acre base, which was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list in 1998.

The awards, which are broken into five categories, are presented every year, and all 200 Army bases in the country are eligible to apply.

Awards administrators said Fort Meade beat five competitors for its citation. The base also won an honorable mention in the larger Department of Defense award contest, which will be presented during a ceremony Thursday.

The recognition is meaningful because of the tense history of problems with environmental officials. In the past, regulators overseeing Fort Meade's cleanup have chastised Army officials for delays and fined them for contamination. Those involved in the clashes say that only in the past three years have they learned to get along in the interest of speeding up the cleanup.

"In the beginning, it was real rough," said Jim Gebhardt, Fort Meade's environmental engineer, who remembers the friction well. "Everyone came in with flexed muscles. The regulators came in real tough. We came to the plate very firm. But after a while, we all realized we had the same goal, and that it was time to let down the shield."

In 1994, four years before Fort Meade had landed on the Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites, the Maryland Department of the Environment fined the base $10,000 for 82 counts of improper hazardous waste management dating to 1989.

By September 1997, the base was fined $75,000 for burying more than 260 drums of oil at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office on the post's southern border. The site was one of four singled out for contamination when the base was listed as a Superfund site the next year.

Gebhardt says monthly partnering sessions with regulators resulted in the success.

At those meetings, officials from the EPA, MDE and Army Corps of Engineers discuss site progress. Before the sessions were implemented, Gebhardt said, the base could wait weeks or months for answers from the other agencies.

"Now we get answers right across the table, real quickly," he said.

Steven Hirsh, EPA's Maryland work leader for Superfund, said the partnering sessions saved time. Hirsh said in the past two years progress at Fort Meade was moving swiftly, especially with Tipton Airport, which had one of the shortest stays on the Superfund list before being cleaned and transferred to Anne Arundel County in late 1999.

"We focused a lot of energy and effort on it," Hirsh said of the airport. "It's nice to get recognition."

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