Officials try to mend fences at Fort Meade

Government shows plans for Library of Congress storage facility project

October 19, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The goal seemed benign: Build a climate-controlled storage facility to protect the Library of Congress' overflowing collection of books and papers.

But when the Architect of the Capitol, the real estate arm of Congress, built the first of 13 storage buildings on Fort Meade two years ago, residents and Army officials cried foul.

The modern building, with its shark-fin-like ducts, did not fit in with the base's traditional look. And because Fort Meade is on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list, regulators were furious they knew so little about the building plans.

In a meeting this week, AOC officials told both environmental regulators and Army officials that they were making strides to correct past mistakes, including sharing long-range plans with the Army.

"We're here to turn that around," AOC Superintendent Stephen T. Ayers told members of Fort Meade's Restoration Advisory Board when challenged at the meeting about the lack of disclosure. "We've evidenced that through our relationship with Fort Meade in the last year."

For the first time, Ayers showed the group of citizens and regulators the agency's plans for the 100-acre site at the edge of the base, near Route 32.

Plans call for about half the site to be developed and for the rest to be landscaped.

The facility is part of a 50-year project to store a portion of the library's 126 million items in a safe location close to Capitol Hill so library staff can retrieve items within one day.

The Library of Congress has long been running out of room at the Capitol Hill location; as the nation's repository for all copyrighted materials, the library takes in about 7,000 documents a day.

Each module at the planned Fort Meade facility will hold about 2 million items. The first opened in November, and construction on the second one is to begin this fall.

A more uniform look

Ayers said the site's architects would use painting and landscaping to tone down the out-of-place look of the first module, a $4.7 million structure that remains at 50 degrees with 30 percent humidity year-round.

He added that they also will make sure future modules fit in better on the base, where the buildings feature red brick and black shutters.

"We certainly received feedback from Fort Meade that it wasn't in keeping with the base's design," Ayers said.

Army officials and regulators also complained they were kept in the dark on the environmental situation at the site, once a motor pool and railroad bed.

Ever since Fort Meade was placed on the EPA's list of the nation's most hazardous sites in 1998, Army officials have worked closely with regulators to clean up the base. Problems include chlorinated solvent contamination.

Those most closely involved in the cleanup meet quarterly; they share findings with restoration board members about six times a year.

Base officials also follow the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 law requiring extensive soil, water and air quality studies before building on federal land. The studies must be released for public comment before construction.

But the law does not apply to legislative branch agencies, making AOC work exempt. And the Army has no control over what happens on the library's 100 acres; an act of Congress required the Army to give the land away in 1993.

When Lt. Col. Rodney Gettig became Fort Meade's director of public works last year, he called a meeting with the agency to discuss the problems. After that, AOC engineers began attending the quarterly sessions.

The agency also hired the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental assessment of the property, which it is putting out for public comment.

"It's the command's intent, because of the way things started out, that we be good neighbors to each other," Gettig said.

Ayers added that even if obeying the environmental policy law isn't required, it is "the right thing to do."

A watchful eye

Restoration board Chairwoman Zoe Draughon said she was pleased AOC officials were sharing the information, but warned that the board would remain vigilant.

"Building on a Superfund site where requirements have to be met, and having the Architect of the Capitol ignore them, is shocking," Draughon said. "That can't happen again."

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