NSA free of major pollution

Odenton campus study finds few contaminants

`pretty clean,' official says

Report was edited for security

March 17, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

After months of pressure from environmental regulators and Army officials, the National Security Agency has released a contamination study that shows no signs of major pollution at the sprawling, super-secret campus in Odenton.

NSA officials released the inch-thick, three-part Building Survey and Contamination Assessment at last week's meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of citizens and regulators overseeing Fort Meade's Superfund cleanup. NSA is a tenant on Fort Meade.

Six months ago, the board learned that NSA had completed the study and that the agency had released part of it to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002, but had taken it back because of a post-Sept. 11 security directive.

NSA senior environmental engineer Juan Boston said his agency intended to release the information to the public, but had to edit out building names and locations.

"We're not above the law or sheltered from the law in any way," Boston said. "It was a security call, what was to be left in and what was to be taken out. And no environmental information was taken out."

Boston said the NSA campus was "pretty clean," with no plumes or lagoons discovered and only trace amounts of pesticides and organic compounds. Considering the industrial functions at the agency, which makes its own computer chips and pulps its own paper, Boston said he expected the contractors might find more areas of concern.

"We actually expected more than what we found. We're actually quite surprised with what we're getting," he said. "There is no contamination on campus, or migrating from campus, that poses any threat to human health and the environment."

The advisory board asked the NSA to conduct the study as part of an effort to identify and clean up contamination at the 86-year-old Fort Meade Army post, a major camp for soldiers in both world wars. In 1998, the EPA placed the entire base, including the NSA, on its Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites, mostly because of pollution from fuels, munitions and solvents.

After the listing, the base conducted studies that identified about 200 potentially contaminated sites that could, if left alone, cause water and soil problems. The Army hired contractors to assess and clean them. As of last week, 28 sites required further action.

Fort Meade's study did not investigate any buildings on NSA's campus, which includes chemical storage areas, motor pools, recycling plants and other industrial facilities. The board wanted to know if the campus contained areas of concern.

The NSA spent its own money on the study and hired its own contractor, which had a security clearance to enter many but not all campus buildings.

EPA remedial project manager Robert Stroud said he didn't question Boston when the NSA engineer called about two months after he'd sent the report and said he needed it back. But Stroud said he understood why the board was concerned.

"It makes me feel a lot more comfortable, for sure," Stroud said after getting the edited report. "Especially with the type of agency NSA is, people always wonder."

Board Chairman Zoe B. Draughon said Friday that she had not reviewed the report but is glad that she and the regulators will have the opportunity to do so. Generally, the board reviews and comments on environmental studies. Several of its citizen members have expertise in health and environmental fields.

"It's good that they are at least making the effort to include the public and the authorities," she said. "If there was nothing to hide, they just shouldn't have hidden it."

Lt. Col. Rodney Gettig, Fort Meade public works director, said he never doubted the NSA had legitimate security concerns, and never suspected they were trying to cover up pollution.

"I never thought there was an environmental issue. It was more of a process that had been circumvented that needed to be re-energized," he said.

Gettig, who has worked with citizen advisory boards for much of his career, said he was glad the system worked, and that the NSA responded.

"These boards exist for a reason," Gettig said. "It's a public process. That's what America's all about, right?"

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