NSA says its toxic waste is classified

Area activists complain agency is uncooperative with EPA cleanup efforts

December 30, 2003|By Rona Kobell and Ariel Sabar | Rona Kobell and Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Since the Environmental Protection Agency put Fort Meade on its Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites in 1998, regulators have been pushing for an aggressive cleanup of the 5,400-acre complex.

Despite repeated requests, though, officials at the National Security Agency have refused to share with either Army officials or government regulators crucial information about environmental conditions on its section of the Odenton post.

Regulators and citizen activists contend that the NSA -- a super-secret global eavesdropping agency -- still thinks of itself as separate from the post, and thus not subject to the laws regulating environmental cleanup.

"No one's asking them for state secrets," said Zoe Draughon, chairwoman of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of citizens and regulators overseeing the post's cleanup. She said that her group will not let the agency "wrap themselves up in paranoia and patriotism and say they have classified dirt."

In a written response to questions from The Sun, NSA officials said they classified their report because it gave away too much information about its buildings and their functions.

The agency added that it has every intention of complying with environmental laws. It has promised EPA officials an edited, unclassified version of the report without the sensitive information by early next year, when the NSA is expected to complete its security review.

The 86-year-old post, a major camp for soldiers during both world wars, landed on the EPA's list mostly because of contamination from fuels, solvents and munitions. Some of the worst problems were found in 1995, when workers discovered 267 buried drums seeping petroleum.

Over the past five years, Army officials have worked closely with state and federal regulators to identify hazardous areas and clean them up in hopes of moving the post off the list.

Through an extensive study, the Fort Meade environmental office identified close to 200 "solid waste management units" -- areas of potential contamination that could cause long-term ground-water and soil problems.

Once the sites were identified, Army officials hired contractors to investigate the sites and clean them up. By last summer, only 30 sites required further action.

NSA is not near Fort Meade's most hazardous sites, which include an old laundry facility and a dump. But because the agency is known to make its own computer chips, regulators were curious to see the soil's condition.

"They've handled hazardous waste in the past for some of their operations," said Paul H. Leonard, chief of federal facilities regulation at the EPA's regional headquarters in Philadelphia. "We don't have a lot of information -- that's what this report was geared at."

Instead of participating in the Army's study, the NSA began conducting its own last year and, according to the Army, paid for it as well. Recently, officials gave the findings to an EPA representative, but then abruptly took it back, pointing to security concerns.

In its statement, the NSA sought to distance itself from the post's $80 million cleanup, saying it launched the study at the advisory board's request and not in response to any Superfund requirement.

But the EPA's Leonard said that the study, as an investigation into pollution at a Superfund site, was part of the regulatory process. "They are required to investigate any areas where they would potentially have contamination," he said.

He added that the EPA needs the report to properly define the scope of pollution at Fort Meade and decide on any cleanup.

"We want to get it as fast as we can," he said, "but we also understand the security issues."

Leonard said that the NSA was the only federal agency in its jurisdiction -- which covers five states and Washington, D.C. -- to take back a report it had given regulators.

Gary Zolyak, who runs Fort Meade's Environmental Management Office, said he was surprised to learn that NSA had taken back its information.

"Our working relationship with NSA over the years, I always thought it was a very good one," he said. "This is the first time I can recall that there was a hesitation to provide information to the Fort Meade Environmental Management Office."

But Zolyak said he, too, understands NSA's concerns -- the environmental studies often include maps, aerial photos and other sensitive information.

If that's NSA's worry, Draughon maintains, the code-breaking agency could give the regulators the information and keep it from her board and the public.

"This is a report that absolutely belonged to EPA," she said. "They seem to have forgotten there is chain of command, even for NSA."

Though NSA has a representative on the advisory board, he rarely presents agency updates at bimonthly meetings.

Draughon, who has fought the NSA over plans to build both a generator and an incinerator, said she might turn to Congress for the report if regulators don't get it soon.

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