Two months before a private company breaks ground on a $3 billion housing development at Fort Meade, environmental regulators are questioning how the land was transferred by the Army and the safety of building on a base with confirmed environmental hazards.
Army officials insist that they followed all environmental and public disclosure rules in transferring the 3,000 housing units to Picerne Real Estate Group of Rhode Island under a 50-year lease for the 1,000-acre parcel.
But members of an official advisory board that includes representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Anne Arundel County Health Department and area residents note what they say are several flaws in the Army's environmental studies. Among them:
The Army did not test drinking water wells, soil and ground water for evidence of contamination before completing the deal, relying instead on "nonintrusive, on-site visual surveys." One of the housing parcels is a few hundred feet from a former Nike missile site, where Fort Meade's environmental office has documented ground water contamination from chlorinated solvents and petroleum products.
The Army did not include studies of wetlands, habitats, endangered species or archaeological sites in its Environmental Baseline Survey - a key study that is supposed to outline all environmental impacts.
The Army found that construction would have "no significant impact" on Fort Meade's housing parcel. But the same document states that the parcel includes buildings containing asbestos and lead paint and also has transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that had spills in the past.
The Army never shared with the EPA or other advisory board members its transfer and lease documents or its Environmental Baseline Survey before it completed the deal last month despite requests for them. The EPA and several other board members hadn't received the studies as of yesterday.
"It just seems like we're getting deeper and deeper in the hole here," said Robert W. Stroud, the EPA's remedial project manager for Fort Meade and a member of the Restoration Advisory Board, the official oversight panel. "I've never dealt with anything like this before. There are just so many holes and inconsistencies."
Lack of testing
Stroud and the board's chairwoman, Zoe Draughon, question why the Army did not conduct its own soil, water and ground water tests on the housing parcels. Without those studies, Draughon asked, "How can they know they're not putting these families on contaminated land?"
Stroud plans to show the documents to EPA's lawyers to make sure the Army didn't violate federal Superfund procedures.
"I never thought they didn't do it the right way," he said of the Army. "But now, it seems like in their haste to get things done, there were a lot of corners cut. And if they're not doing this right, it just leaves open the question of what else they're not doing correctly."
Fort Meade's environmental chief, Paul Robert, said the Army didn't take soil and water samples because they were not needed. He said his office is testing the ground water contamination at the former Nike missile site nearby, but that won't affect construction.
Fort Meade officials also said that Army regulations do not require wetland, archaeological and endangered species studies as part of the baseline environmental report.
Army lawyers said yesterday that while Army rules require that the regulatory agencies be included in preparing land transfers, leases and environmental studies, those rules are subject to interpretation. Because it wanted to complete the deal by May 1, they said, the Army decided not to share the studies before the lease and transfer agreements were signed.
"In retrospect, sure, maybe we could have done things a little differently," said Army attorney Gary Zolyak. "Our goal was not to attempt to shut out the public and other regulators."
Environmental agencies and the Army have a contentious history, and several board members said the Army's failure to include them in the housing review process eroded a trust that took years to build.
In 1996, when the Army tried to build a storage facility at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, near the post's southern border, it assured the board the land was safe.
But during construction, crews dug up more than 260 drums of oil that had been buried there. Board members fumed, the EPA fined the base $75,000 and the discovery helped land the base on the EPA's Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites.
`Out of the loop'
Fort Meade's housing area is not one of the four major areas that earned the base the Superfund designation, but several housing parcels border hazardous sites, such as the former Nike missile site off Route 175 and a former shooting range.
Delays in receiving the environmental, lease and transfer documents on the housing project further eroded the Army-regulator relationship.