Aberdeen Proving Ground environmental cleanup officers have gotten approval from the Department of the Army to seek research funding to clean up high levels of a rocket-fuel component found in the soil on base near the city of Aberdeen's well field.
But Ken Stachiw, head of APG's cleanup program, said Friday the plan has only a "50-50" chance of coming together.
"It's not a sure thing," he said, adding that his staff hoped to learn this week from APG officials whether such funding would be likely.
Aberdeen's wells are contaminated with perchlorate, an additive also used in explosive devices such as grenades. While levels in the groundwater have not exceeded about 23 parts per billion, soil tests of the area last year revealed levels as high as 15,000 parts per billion.
The Army acknowledges causing the contamination but has refused to clean it up because there is no national cleanup standard. How much perchlorate is hazardous to humans is not known, and the Environmental Protection Agency has not issued a national standard for it in drinking water.
But the chemical is known to disrupt thyroid function and is suspected of contributing to developmental problems in fetuses, infants and young children.
"The Army seems opposed to doing anything with perchlorate in it," said Glenda Bowling of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition. "Once they clean it up here, they're going to have to clean it up nationwide."
Perchlorate is a problem across the country for the military - the primary user of the saltlike compound - and could cost the Defense Department billions to remediate.
A standard is not expected for at least another year, federal officials have said, so Maryland has issued an interim standard of 1 part per billion in drinking water. The city has been able to mix water from its 11 wells to maintain or stay below that level.
With the high levels found in the soil above the groundwater, Stachiw said, finding the means to clean it up now is preferable. "It's not in the water yet," he said. "Once it gets into the water, it becomes more difficult to extract."
Stachiw said the approval allows APG to seek non-environmental funding from commands such as the Research, Development and Engineering Command. He said a link would most likely have to be established between perchlorate and military preparedness before the command could fund the research.
Ted Henry, a member of APG's restoration advisory board, a citizens regulator panel that closely watches environmental cleanup at the 72,000-acre base on the Chesapeake Bay, said he thinks seeking alternative funding is a good idea, and if APG can't get the funds, the city of Aberdeen should consider seeking sources for its own research.
Perchlorate was discovered in the Aberdeen well field in March 2001, after citizens and regulators asked APG officials to test for it around a troop training area near the wells.
Last year's soil and groundwater tests of the area were expanded after Army engineers and contractors walking the site found seven old barrels containing spent incendiary devices and three other sites with pieces of scrap metal - such as wires, pipes or rods - on the ground, base officials say.