Since 1984, they point out, the Defense Department has spent $18.6 billion to clean up hazardous waste at more than 11,000 current and former military sites. Of the $31 billion of work remaining, Pentagon officials have set a goal of addressing all of the highest-risk sites by 2007.
"Cleaning up the environment is a priority for the Department of Defense," says Raymond F. DuBois Jr., the department's deputy undersecretary for installations and environment. "First, a healthy and productive environment is a key element of national power. Second, environmental restoration is good management of the scarce resources entrusted to us by the American people. And third, environmental restoration is a reflection of the high ethical values of our men and women in uniform and the nation they represent."
Even so, he says, budget limits force the department to prioritize cleanups. Some waste sites have gone undetected for years because the military kept spotty records of how, when and where it handled dangerous waste in an era before strong environmental laws.
"We're trying to characterize events which arguably took place in the hoary mists of time," DuBois says.
There are no known clusters of cancer cases in Maryland of the sort confounding neighbors of fouled bases in Cape Cod, Mass., San Antonio, Texas, and Fallon, Nev.
According to Maryland county health officials and neighborhood watchdog groups, a few people living near bases have fretted about whether their health problems may be linked to tainted water. But the validity of such fears is hard to verify, in part because no public health studies have been conducted.
In the meantime, Marylanders living near bases grapple with unsettling questions about their land and water.
"What else is there we don't know about yet?" asks Ruth Ann Young, 62, a retired school guidance counselor living near Aberdeen Proving Ground who has avoided tap water since the discovery last year of a rocket fuel ingredient in some city wells. "What else is there to learn that we don't know about yet that could be harmful to us?"
There could be a lot, according to The Sun's review of hundreds of documents and its interviews with dozens of military and environmental officials, lawyers, experts, and people who live near bases.
At Fort Detrick in late 2001, workers in protective suits launched a multimillion-dollar cleanup of what they thought was a chemical waste dump. But within a few weeks, shovels were churning up not only cancer-causing chemicals, but also vials of bacteria - including nonvirulent anthrax - apparently left over from biological weapons programs. More than 100 vials have been found to date. What had begun as a $10 million, six-month cleanup is now expected to cost $20 million and take at least twice as long.
At Aberdeen Proving Ground, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 1993 that off-post drinking water wells "were not likely to become contaminated in the future." But last year, the chemical perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient linked to thyroid disorders, turned up in the city of Aberdeen's tap water. The Pentagon has balked at cleaning it up, saying there is little proof that perchlorate is harmful.
Despite two decades of environmental surveys at Aberdeen Proving Ground, officials suspected no serious problems in a field of marsh grasses near the Gunpowder River. But in 1997, a freak brush fire revealed an enormous dump. As of late last year, cleanup workers at the site had removed 12,700 cubic yards of waste, 325 explosives, and 7,680 pieces of inert scrap from explosives.
"We discovered the extent of what's out here by accident," says John T. Paul Jr., the base's manager of environmental risk.
At the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County, the Navy conducted extensive studies in 1983 and 1992 to identify waste sites. Somehow, both missed a plume of ground water tainted with cancer-causing solvents that was draining into Mattawoman Creek, a popular fishing spot. The plume was discovered by chance in 1994, when a state inspector noticed a strange smell wafting from a manhole. A $1.3 million cleanup of the solvent-laced ground water is expected to begin within a year.
As early as 1991, Fort Meade had records showing high levels of fuel-related chemicals in the soil at the base's Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office. Without doing extra tests recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, base officials began building a warehouse on the site. Only then, in 1995, did construction workers discover 267 buried drums of fuel, oil and solvents that had leaked into the soil and ground water.
Although the Pentagon largely dismissed a report that Washington's affluent Spring Valley neighborhood had been a chemical weapons test site during World War I, a contractor digging a utility trench stumbled across chemical shells in 1993. After an emergency cleanup, the Army pronounced the area safe.