Aberdeen Superfund group meets tonight to push for APG cleanup of perchlorate

Rocket-fuel ingredient found near city's wells

October 22, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Concerned Aberdeen residents are meeting tonight to try to educate their neighbors about the city's drinking water, which contains a hazardous rocket-fuel ingredient once used in training exercises at Aberdeen Proving Ground - and which the Army shows no sign of cleaning up soon.

Members of a citizens watchdog group say they need more community support to press the Army to clean up the pollutant, a chemical called perchlorate, from the ground water that feeds the city's 11 wells

"We have a lot of work to do to educate these people," said Glenda Bowling, a past president of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, which has been pushing the issue for two years.

"We can't do it by ourselves. We need more public support if we're going to make enough noise to get them [the Army] to put in water treatment facilities."

Perchlorate is known to disrupt thyroid function and is suspected of contributing to developmental problems in fetuses, infants and young children.

The chemical is an unregulated pollutant at the center of a national dispute over how much is safe in drinking water.

While officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pentagon clash over research and safe levels, communities like Aberdeen across the nation - primarily around military bases - are faced with polluted water that the military says it won't clean up until EPA sets a national standard.

That decision could be years away.

So the Army wasn't included on the guest list for tonight's meeting.

"We're not interested in hearing from the Army why they don't need to respond to us," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic. "We have been asking repeatedly for action and never get anywhere."

The city has controlled the level of perchlorate in residents' tap water by mixing water from the wells.

The chemical's levels have not exceeded Maryland's advisory standard of 1 part per billion, according to city water quality reports.

Peter Dacey, city manager, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

New concerns flared in the community after recent, wider testing of the area around the wells - where old barrels of spent incendiary devices and other test debris were found - discovered perchlorate in the soil and ground water at levels thousands of times higher than any previous tests.

APG stresses that these perchlorate finds - ranging from 3,500 parts per billion in ground water to 15,000 parts per billion in the soil above it - are about 600 feet away from the wells and that the contamination seems to be moving very slowly.

George Mercer, APG spokesman, said the perchlorate "spikes," as high-level detections are called, are isolated data that help to give an overall picture of the pollution.

"There's no clear picture of that being a direct, immediate threat to the water supply," he said.

A resampling of the 3,500 parts per billion spike Oct. 6 found perchlorate levels at 1.64 and 2.65 parts per billion - but the samples, according to APG's data, were not taken in the same spot.

The original sample was taken at about a 45-foot depth, while the resamples were taken nearly 10 feet above and below the original.

Yesterday, Mercer could not explain the discrepancy. "We tested very, very close to it," he said.

Steinzor wrote a letter Oct. 15 to Col. Mardi Mark, deputy installation commander, on behalf of the group, asking the Army to install ion-exchange filters on the wells to filter the perchlorate out of the water.

The letter also asked for increased testing in the area to include analysis of the soil where the high levels of perchlorate were found.

Mercer said yesterday that a response to the letter "was being worked on as we speak" and that he was not aware of any pending changes in testing.

He said the city and APG alternate water testing on a monthly basis. When the Army tests, he said, it takes samples from all the production wells once a month, and from the three most contaminated wells biweekly.

APG and the city test the treated drinking water once a week.

"The real focus is to make sure the drinking water ... is good water," Mercer said.

Steinzor said the Army can help ensure water quality by installing ion-exchange systems on the wells.

With $22 million being spent on cleanup projects at APG, she said, the estimated $1 million needed for the systems is a reasonable investment.

Perchlorate "is the most tangible health threat to the people living around the base and it would cost $1 million to put everyone's mind at ease," Steinzor said.

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