Officials ponder methane problem

Fort Meade homes called safe for now

tests go on

Gas may have migrated from site

December 26, 2004|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

The discovery of methane gas this month beneath an abandoned trash dump at Fort Meade has residents, the Army and environmental regulators mulling over the next step to alleviate a buried hazard.

Officials insist that the gas, a normal byproduct of landfills, poses no imminent threat to residents at a new cluster of townhouses on the Army post - even though some are just 40 feet from test sites that registered explosive methane levels in recent weeks.

A swath of land slightly larger than the estimated 4-acre dump was cordoned off by fences soon after Army officials learned of the methane. The restricted area includes part of the playground at Manor View Elementary School, which is east of the 1940s-era trash site.

But federal and state environmental officials say there is little risk of spontaneous explosion because the high methane levels were discovered 2 to 5 feet below ground, where an ignition source is unlikely.

No residents have been evacuated, and Manor View continued to operate on a normal schedule through Thursday, when students went on holiday break.

"Currently there is really no danger to the homes or the nearby school," said Butch Dye, administrator of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Hazardous Waste Program, which is helping to monitor the dump site.

Some activists aren't so reassured, however.

"They can tell you there won't be an explosion in 30 minutes, but they can't tell you what will happen in the next 30 days," said Zoe B. Draughon, chairwoman of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of residents and regulators overseeing Fort Meade's Superfund cleanup.

Picerne Real Estate Group, the Rhode Island company that serves as the housing authority at Fort Meade, discovered the dump - thought to largely consist of household trash - during construction of townhouses in February 2003.

Army officials have speculated that trash was repeatedly burned with gasoline to reduce the volume of the pile. Tests by Picerne and the Army last year identified the presence of combustible gases, pesticides, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, but no methane.

With the discovery of the dump and the toxic substances, the Army, the Environmental Protection Agency and MDE developed a six-month environmental survey of the area that began in June.

As a part of this more extensive evaluation, an Army contractor performed soil and vapor testing in October and last month at 31 sites along the known perimeter of the dump. Fort Meade officials learned early this month of the high concentration of methane and other combustible gases in some test sites.

By Dec. 10, the Army began daily indoor monitoring of the surrounding buildings - the school and 20 homes. Those tests have come back negative, said Michael P. Butler, manager of the Environmental Management Office at Fort Meade.

Fort Meade officials have said they can't determine the total volume of methane and other combustible gases that were detected in the ground. But in four of the 31 test sites, explosive levels of methane were discovered near an area of two-story townhomes.

The testing in October and last month also revealed concentrations of methane at 10 percent of the explosive level at two test sites near the back of Manor View Elementary. In addition, several spots near Manor View and the homes showed concentrations of potentially cancer-causing industrial agents that exceeded EPA safety guidelines.

Army officials stressed that the findings were preliminary, and the results will be added to the six-month environmental study.

Still, the uncertainty of whether the gas will seep from the ground into the buildings - which could provide a potential ignition source - "has the Army scrambling," Draughon said.

Electronic monitors that detect combustible gas have been installed over the past 10 days in the elementary school and each of the 20 residences, Butler said. The Army will begin a new round of tests within the next couple of months for methane under the foundations of the school and homes, Butler said.

"We don't know if the gas has migrated," Butler said.

Although the Army is testing for other agents as well, methane is the top focus, said Lt. Col. Charles E. Cannon of the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.

Officials hope that all this testing will help them determine the proper course of action, which could include venting or excavation of the site. Any effort to rectify the situation likely will take years, officials said.

Draughon faults Picerne for continuing to build near the dump site after discovering the dump and before the results of the assessment were known. She is also critical of the company's decision not to line the foundations with a protective cover that would have prevented gases from penetrating the nearby residences.

After learning of the existence of the dump site, Picerne eliminated plans for 25 of the 30 townhouses slated to be built closest to it - a move done in consultation with MDE, company spokesman Bill Mulvey said.

Because methane is a normally occurring byproduct in landfills, no one knows how long the threat will exist.

That reality, Draughon said, will put the homeowners near the dump site in a tough spot: Either stay in homes near high levels of methane and hazardous substances or go back to outdated, undersized housing elsewhere on the post.

"I think there are some very excited families that are willing to listen to anything" the Army and Picerne have to say, Draughon said. "They have created a situation in which there is no option for these families."

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