Meade housing manager using polluted building

Environmental regulators, at odds with Army again

Anne Arundel

August 01, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The company hired to modernize Fort Meade's housing is using a warehouse area contaminated with hazardous chemicals, sparking criticism from federal environmental regulators who are monitoring cleanup efforts at the Superfund site.

Building 2276, a former furniture-repair warehouse, was vacant until this month, when Picerne Real Estate Group began storing lawnmowers, pesticides and household items such as ovens there. Picerne had permission from the Army's housing office, but neither the Army's environmental office nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were told that the company had moved in.

"We have no idea if they're adding more contamination to the area," said Robert Stroud, remedial project manager for the EPA, which has monitored activity at the base since it was added in 1998 to the Superfund list of the nation's most polluted sites. "They're storing pesticides there. They could be putting their workers at risk."

Building 2276 has touched off the latest dispute between environmental regulators and Army officials.

In recent weeks, regulators have criticized the $3 billion deal to privatize base housing, arguing that the Army delayed releasing environmental studies of the land and then submitted incomplete information.

Members of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of citizens and regulators who review cleanup efforts, and the Army's environmental office say the housing office has not kept them informed of dealings with Picerne.

In May, the Army transferred about 2,500 homes on the post to Picerne, which now manages them, and signed a 50-year lease with the company. Over the next 10 years, Picerne is to build and manage homes on the base.

Army officials say they didn't share transfer and lease documents or environmental studies with the board because they feared such a review would delay the project. When the board finally received the studies, several members complained that Army had not obtained its own soil samples or included wetlands, habitat and archaeological studies.

When he addressed the board this month, Richard McSeveney, the senior civilian leader for the Military District of Washington, which governs Fort Meade, promised that the base's environmental office would be included in housing decisions.

One week later, Army environmental chief Paul Robert said one of his employees spotted a fence being built at Building 2276, one of 150 sites at Fort Meade where the Army's environmental office has found evidence of potential contamination. The army environmental office is trying to determine how much contamination is there and how best to clean it up.

"The environmental staff is the eyes and ears of the installation," Robert said. "Now, that's not to say that's the way we like to find out about it."

Fort Meade's real estate office works with Robert's office to assign buildings. However, as Meade officials recently learned, base housing manager George Barbee can assign Picerne buildings because he works for the Military District of Washington, a higher command.

Barbee was not available for comment yesterday.

Robert said he questions that authority but is focused on making sure Picerne understands that it isn't permitted to dig or drill on the property, or otherwise disturb it. "They don't have free rein of the site that they once thought they might have had," he said.

Picerne program manager Charles Debelius said Barbee suggested 2276 as a temporary home while approval for a larger building was awaited. "We didn't find out about the contamination until we built the fence," Debelius said.

A few months ago, at a Restoration Advisory Board meeting, members received a chart of the contaminated sites, including Building 2276. The list is available at Robert's office.

"How can a governing party say with a straight face that they are looking out for the best interest of soldiers when it puts its own partner in a contaminated building?" asked Zoe Draughon, the board's chairwoman. "Their actions speak louder than their words."

Draughon and Stroud fear that if Picerne mixes pesticides and they seep into the soil, future tests at the site will be compromised.

Construction of the first new homes is scheduled to begin next month. Draughon, concerned about what she considers incomplete environmental studies, said the board will discuss how to proceed at its meeting this month.

EPA's Stroud plans to send a letter tomorrow to the newly installed base commander, Col. John W. Ives, requesting an immediate meeting with Army officials.

"I thought that everyone would be included in any decisions that were made," Stroud said. "I want to let them know that what's happened to date is not really acceptable to us, and not to the community or the Maryland Department of the Environment, either."

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