NSA relents on files' release

Secret agency allows EPA, MDE, Fort Meade to view pollution report

Cursory look shows no problems

Edited version planned because of security fears

access later to full study

January 18, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

After months of denying regulators access to a key environmental study, the National Security Agency has opened its doors and its files -- if only for a peek.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment and Fort Meade's environmental office got their first look last week at the super-secret eavesdropping agency's building contamination study, which outlines potential pollution problems.

NSA is situated on a corner of the Fort Meade Army post in Odenton, which has been listed since 1998 on the EPA's Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites. Although NSA is not near the main areas of concern, regulators long have suspected that NSA has handled some hazardous waste over the years. But their cursory review of the NSA study didn't yield any red flags.

"Based on my brief review, I did not see any regional environmental impacts resulting from historical operations at the NSA campus," said Fort Meade environmental engineer Jeffrey Thornburg.

NSA expects to release an edited version of the report to regulators and the public next month. That version will include the environmental studies, but not maps, historical data and building function details that the NSA has deemed sensitive.

"The study is currently under review to remove information relating to NSA's plans, operations, and potential security vulnerabilities," an NSA spokeswoman said last week.

Federal and state regulators will be able to return to NSA and view the full report if they need more information. Historical data, such as the location of a wood-treatment facility or computer chip-making operation, might explain why certain contaminants turn up in certain places. If the edited report does not answer all such questions, Thornburg said, he'll go back to see the full version.

For months, the lack of environmental information from the global code-breaking agency has frustrated regulators and citizens who have been working together to clean up the 86-year-old Army post.

Over the past five years, the Army's environmental office has identified close to 200 areas of potential contamination that could cause long-term ground-water and soil problems, most stemming from fuel, solvents and munitions dating to the post's years as a major training camp for soldiers. By last summer, only 30 sites still required further cleanup.

Board and Army

That swift action and exchange of information improved the once-contentious relations between the Army and the Restoration Advisory Board, the citizen-regulator group overseeing the Superfund cleanup.

Rather than participating in the Army's study, the NSA conducted its own in 2002. Last year, NSA officials gave the findings to an EPA representative, but abruptly took the report back, noting new post-Sept. 11, 2001, security concerns. NSA said the report revealed too much about its buildings and their functions.

NSA told The Sun last month that it launched the study at the advisory board's request and not in response to Superfund requirements. However, EPA officials considered the pollution study a key part of the regulatory process.

Advisory board Chairwoman Zoe Draughon said the NSA agreed to release the information only after the news reports circulated and public pressure increased.

"The NSA is releasing the report not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's being forced to do it," she said. "But at this point, I'll take anything."

Review by regulators

Draughon said she doesn't need to see the unedited report as long as the regulators can review it.

"NSA can't check themselves and say, `Oh, we're OK,'" she said. "They have to let the people who are supposed to do the checking do their jobs."

Board members hope that the NSA's cooperation is a sign that the agency's door may be opening more than just a crack. In the past few months, NSA and Army officials have met more frequently.

"We're bridging any sort of gaps in our relationship," Thornburg said. "This is really setting the tone for future communication between NSA and Fort Meade."

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