Fort Meade's housing manager using contaminated warehouse

employees could be in jeopardy

Environmental regulators at odds with Army again

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 lawn mowers, 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 was 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 the Army had not obtained soil samples or included wetlands, habitat and archaeological studies.

When he addressed the board this month, Richard McSeveney, 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 ensuring that Picerne understands 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 an Advisory Board meeting, members got a chart of contaminated sites, including Building 2276.

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