Group calling for cleanup of perchlorate in Aberdeen

1 well shut after chemical was detected this week

October 04, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The community watchdog group that monitors environmental cleanup at Aberdeen Proving Ground called on the Defense Department yesterday to authorize an immediate cleanup of chemical contamination found in the town of Aberdeen's wells.

The call was made after tests this week found perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel and explosives, in the town's treated drinking water at a level of 1 part per billion, the state's maximum allowable level.

The test results spurred city officials to shut down one well and halve production at two others.

"The Aberdeen well field is contaminated with perchlorate from military activities, and this contamination must be treated now," the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition said in a statement.

The Army is in "constant discussions with EPA" about the perchlorate issue, and is very concerned about avoiding public health hazards, John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for environmental matters, said yesterday. He added that the Environmental Protection Agency has not issued a regulatory standard for perchlorate. "The first question is if the levels that have been found are hazardous to the people who are exposed to it," he said.

EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods said yesterday that it could be five years before a regulatory standard is adopted, but that the agency could alter that schedule.

Steven R. Hirsh, an EPA remedial project manager, said the agency can order a site cleanup without a regulatory standard. Asked whether such a measure is being considered at APG, he said, "Yes, that's a possibility."

Woodley said that if the EPA or the state identified hazards and recommended ways to deal with them, the Department of Defense "would be anxious to avoid a hazardous condition whether there was an order or not."

APG officials acknowledge that the perchlorate is probably the result of training exercises using smoke grenades and explosive devices in the northern corner of the training ground.

Perchlorate was discovered at the installation in March last year, and two still poorly defined "plumes" containing the chemical, ranging from 10 parts per billion to 20 parts per billion, have gravitated to some of Aberdeen's production wells, which are along the post boundary.

Perchlorate interferes with thyroid function and can cause neurological damage to fetuses, newborns and children, experts say. In some cases, prolonged exposure to perchlorate has been linked to thyroid cancer.

Thomas Zoeller, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said much remains to be learned about perchlorate. That is why advisory levels such as Maryland's tend to be low, he said.

The city and Army tested the finished water three times this week. One test detected the chemical in the water at 1 part per billion. The two subsequent tests found levels lower than the reporting limit of 1 part per billion.

Randolph C. Robertson, Aberdeen's director of public works, said yesterday he is confident that the city can maintain a safe supply of drinking water by curtailing the flow from the contaminated wells and using more county water.

"The water is safe," he said. "We wouldn't put it out if it weren't."

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