Army's cleanup contracting draws fire from critics

Some fear contracts could lead to shortcuts

Aberdeen Proving Ground

December 07, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Regulators and community activists who monitor environmental cleanup projects at Aberdeen Proving Ground spoke out last week about the Army's move to a new contracting method that seeks to cut the time and money spent on remediation sites at polluted military bases.

In a pointed, two-hour debate, members of APG's restoration advisory board sparred with Randy Cerar, chief of cleanup for the Army Environmental Center, which is overseeing the performance-based contracting program.

The sometimes-angry remarks from board members centered around the 72,000-acre installation's complex pollution issues, which include a chemical weapons stockpile site, unexploded ordnance and ground water polluted with solvents and rocket-fuel propellant.

"There's been no logic put into this" decision, said Ted Henry, a member of the restoration board. "In the end, the community is going to pay for it because things are going to go wrong."

Performance-based contracting gives contractors an end result to reach, rather than a prescribed cleanup method, and allows the firms more flexibility to determine the best strategy to clean up a site, Cerar said.

Contractors also accept more risk, he said, because the price to clean up a site is often guaranteed by the contractor up front.

Many restoration board and APG officials fear that contractors would exploit the greater flexibility to maintain or increase profits. They say that under a fixed-price contract, as proposed by the center, the contractor has less incentive to look for more extensive pollution - and even more reason not to report unexpected finds in areas where they have guaranteed cleanup.

For the Army, said Ken Stachiw, head of APG's restoration program, this creates a grave risk, where the garrison commander could be found liable if cleanups aren't properly executed.

Cerar acknowledged that APG is a complex site that might require more than one or two contracts. But cost overruns are a concern, he said. The proving ground also has only met, on average, about 30 percent of its annual cleanup goals since 2000, he said, and estimates to complete the cleanup grew from $292 million in 2001 to $308 million this year.

Under the current system, he said, there's no incentive to finish the work. While people want to finish projects, he said, it's human nature to wonder, "unfortunately, when we get done, what do we do next?" - a comment seemingly directed at the restoration board. The remark rankled Stachiw, Henry and other board members.

"My goal is to get done ... regardless of the inferences made," Stachiw said later in the debate. "The goal is to get clean, not to pretend we got clean because the paperwork got in."

Henry also asked whether the Army has conducted follow-up independent sampling at the handful of bases where performance-based contracting is in use to see whether contamination is being missed.

Cerar said, "I would have to get back to you."

"I would bet you haven't," Henry said.

Cerar said contracts would have to be written carefully to allow APG room to change course with the contractor when new contamination is discovered. But when pressed on how new discoveries could be covered in a specifically written contract, he acknowledged that they could not be.

"Hopefully, we wouldn't have too much of that happening," Cerar said.

But at APG, new contamination is found regularly. Three recent important examples have been perchlorate, a rocket fuel component, found unexpectedly in ground water near the city of Aberdeen's wells in 2001; glass vials suspected to contain chemical agents found exposed from an old burial pit on Kings Creek in the spring; and about 200 pieces of ordnance, also suspected of containing chemical agent, found along the Edgewood area's eastern shoreline in January last year.

When asked by Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat who represents southern Harford, what savings the Army was trying to gain with the contracting, Cerar said time was the primary driver.

"We weren't really looking at cost savings," he said.

The Army has said previously, however, that it hopes to save about 15 percent on its environmental cleanup costs.

Cerar said many details remain to be decided at APG, and several options within the performance-based contracting system could be used. The key thing that needs to happen is sit-down discussions between Army Environmental Center and APG officials.

Karl Kalbacher of the Maryland Department of the Environment, along with other restoration advisory board members, asked why the environmental center had done so little to work with regulators and APG officials to prepare for the contracting changes - which Cerar has said results in a marked increase in documents for regulators, base officials and the community to review.

"Unfortunately, we haven't had time to sit down and brief many agencies," Cerar said, though he added that the Army was committed to implementing the contracting method at APG in fiscal year 2004.

Cerar said he would return to speak with the restoration board early next year. He concluded by saying that money and time saved on contracts could be put into other remediation sites on post.

"This is a very important issue to the community and to the Army," he said. "We really want to get these sites cleaned up."

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