Proximity of old dump to school investigated

Testing undertaken at Manor View Elementary

Fort Meade

April 06, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

A 60-year-old trash dump that construction workers recently discovered at Fort Meade likely extends onto an elementary school's property, Army officials said yesterday.

Army officials, who discovered the dump's potential proximity to Manor View Elementary School late last week, notified the school liaison officer, a base employee who works with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, on Friday.

Though the school is county-run, the county leases the property from the Army and most of the pupils come from military families who live on the Odenton base.

"We know it's at the fence line. We know it extends onto the property - we just don't know how far," Fort Meade environmental engineer Jim Gebhardt said yesterday. "Looking at the aerial photo, it's a possibility it could extend to the school's front door."

County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith said in a telephone interview yesterday that neither he nor Associate Superintendent Kenneth Lawson knew about the dump.

Smith said he planned to talk with top Army officials when he returned from a business trip to determine what, if any, precautions were needed to protect pupils and faculty at the school.

"We'll be moving quickly on it," he said. "I'm sure by Monday, there will be more information."

Workers from Picerne Real Estate Group, the Rhode Island company that won the $3 billion contract to build and manage nearly 3,000 new homes as part of a nationwide privatization effort, discovered the old dump two months ago when construction began.

Since then, the Army's environmental engineers have been poring over aerial photos and old maps to determine the size of the dump. Last week, they sampled the soil to determine how deeply and how widely the waste extends.

Initial probes indicated the waste, which is about 15 feet deep, extended to the school's fence line. Just on the other side of the fence is Manor View's playground.

Although initial soil tests showed no vapor contamination, Gebhardt's office is conducting further lab work to look for polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs. Those test results are expected this week.

The school, like all homes on the base, uses the public water system, so any contamination wouldn't affect drinking water. But the Army does plan to test ground water at the site.

The dump, which measures about a half-acre, is thought to have opened in the early 1940s and was used largely for household trash - although workers did find some old X-rays. Many items were covered in fuel, which was likely used to burn and compress the trash. Gebhardt estimates the dump closed by 1947. Manor View was built in the early 1970s, and photos from that time do not show the dump.

Picerne lifted about 1,000 cubic yards of dirt from the forested area before workers stopped digging and notified the environmental office. The excavation sites are a short walk from the fence bordering the school property.

Asked if he had any idea of the dump's scope, Picerne construction director Chris Herrin said: "When it's all trees, it's hard to suspect."

The dump discovery marks the second time in recent years that workers have dug up a problem on the base.

In 1995, while building a warehouse at the old Defense Re-utilization and Marketing Office, workers uncovered 267 buried drums of oil and solvents that had leaked into the soil and ground water. Because of the finding, the Environmental Protection Agency named Fort Meade to its Superfund list of the nation's top hazardous waste sites needing cleanup.

That discovery prompted feuding between the Army and its Restoration Advisory Board, a group of citizens and regulators overseeing the base's cleanup efforts. But in recent years, relations between the board and the Army improved, and in 2000, the once-contentious board won the Army Environmental Award for its achievements.

Recently, the board has sparred with Picerne and Army housing officials over their failure to turn over key environmental studies to regulators and even the base's own environmental officials before transferring Army land to Picerne.

Gebhardt, who routinely examines historical aerial photos for environmental studies, said he never reviewed the baseline environmental studies for the Picerne transfer, and therefore could not say whether the company consulted 1940s aerial photos that show the dump.

After the board's outcry last summer, Army leaders from the Military District of Washington promised that the Army's environmental office would be involved in overseeing the privatization. And yesterday, as board members followed Gebhardt through the muddy terrain for their first view of the dump, several said they were pleased about that.

"I don't know what level of extra investigation they might have done had the environmental office been involved," said board member Robert J. Weber, Anne Arundel County's Director of Community and Environmental Health. "But they are involved now, and that makes me feel a lot better."

Picerne is paying for the testing, according to Army officials. But it's not clear whether the private company or the Army will pay for whatever cleanup needs to be done on the site. Depending on the extent of the problems discovered, Gebhardt said the cleanup could cost as much at $3.5 million.

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