Toxic legacy of military haunts bases

Risks: Despite years of cleanup, discarded weapons and chemicals are still turning up, sometimes close to homes.

January 19, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

CASCADE, Md. - A recently closed Army base might not be everyone's idea of paradise, but Sharon Garcia saw enough to like about Fort Ritchie and its picturesque mountain setting to move her family here a few years ago.

The place grew on her. She bowled in a league at the Sunshine Lanes. Her neighbors came to her door with cookies. And her son Jonathan found friends among the children settling with their families into the modest townhouses that once housed soldiers.

Then the base's past intruded. In late 2001, Army crews discovered grenades, mortar shells and a bazooka rocket in a field 250 feet from the houses.

The Army had assured a developer three years earlier, before the base in Washington County closed, that the houses were safe to rent to the public. Now it was telling Garcia and 110 other families that their houses may have been built atop projectiles from World War I and World War II firing ranges.

The Army ordered Garcia and the others to find new homes, so that it can start searching lawns for buried explosives as early as this summer.

"Nothing was explained to us about the potential dangers," says Garcia, 44, who wonders why weapons that old are being discovered only now. "All these years, no one ever said anything."

Nearly 30 years have passed since the military vowed to clean up the toxic waste it buried decades ago on bases across the country. But today, as many bases are poised to declare the cleanup job complete or to start new lives as parks and housing subdivisions, there is fresh evidence of just how much the military has missed.

The pollution includes leaky underground fuel tanks, pesticides, buried chemical weapons, experimental bacteria, radioactive waste and live explosives. Much of it is now spreading through soil and ground water, sometimes into public water supplies.

Although the military is making measurable progress, it is still stumbling across decades-old dump sites, raising questions about the thoroughness of its earlier investigations.

From 1994 to 2001, the tally of known waste sites on current and former military bases in the United States rose from 24,898 to 28,538, and from 720 to 855 in Maryland.

Belated - and often accidental - discoveries of toxic sites are so routine at some bases that one military official says the cleanup work seems cursed by Murphy's Law, the notion that whatever can go wrong will.

"We've been struck by Murphy a number of times, which has caused the cost and duration of the project ... to obviously rise," says Lt. Col. Donald F. Archibald, the chief environmental officer at Fort Detrick in Frederick County, where a $46 million cleanup is under way.

In Maryland alone, the cleanup job is expected to cost $1.3 billion - enough money to buy 52 F-16 fighter planes, or about two Navy destroyers. But after nearly three decades, the work is just about half-done and will likely stretch well into the middle of this century.

The environmental issues here are among the nation's most complex, in part because Maryland is home to the military's primary research centers for chemical and biological weapons: Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Detrick.

The menu of lethal refuse at Aberdeen - buried bombs, deadly nerve agents, cancer-causing solvents - forms the nation's third most expensive military cleanup. Only the cleanups at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado and McClellan Air Force Base in California will cost taxpayers more.

Of the 18 places in Maryland on the federal government's Superfund list of the most hazardous waste sites, eight are military posts, including Aberdeen, Fort Meade and Andrews Air Force Base, the home of Air Force One.

Critics say that the environment has always been a back-burner issue for the military, one of the nation's biggest polluters and an organization geared to fight wars, not waste. The government's own studies have faulted the military cleanup program for sloppy record-keeping, slipshod investigations, and the absence of quality controls. On at least one installation, the military fired its environmental official for reporting a dump to state regulators.

And nearly two decades after two San Diego boys were killed by a World War II-era tank shell in their residential neighborhood, the military has yet to complete a plan to clean up millions of acres of former firing ranges.

Even as the number of known sites of pollution has climbed, the military's cleanup budget has fallen, from $2.5 billion in 1994 to $1.9 billion last year. This year, the Pentagon plans an aggressive campaign on Capitol Hill to win exemptions from key environmental laws, including those dealing with toxic cleanups.

The Pentagon's top environmental officials say the military has acted immediately to address the most serious threats to human health.

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