Water cleanup sparks dispute

$250,000 sought to filter missile-fuel ingredient

`There has to be some standards'

APG says it won't pay until EPA sets a limit

February 06, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Peter Dacey, manager of the city of Aberdeen, says he's frustrated that the Army has refused to help the local government pay $250,000 to install filters to remove a chemical found in explosives from the public drinking water supply, even though it probably seeped from Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Naturally you would think that somebody who is responsible for the contamination would assume responsibility for the cleanup," Dacey said in an interview Friday.

The chemical, perchlorate, is the primary ingredient in missile fuel and explosives, and over the past five years it has been detected at trace levels in three public drinking wells in Aberdeen and hundreds more in California, Massachusetts and across the country.

At high concentrations, perchlorate can cause brain damage in children and disrupt the thyroid gland's ability to produce hormones, research has suggested.

The low levels in tap water in Aberdeen homes - less than 1 part per billion - are believed to be safe, although research into the subject is continuing and national standards haven't been set, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As the likely result of decades of artillery testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a plume of the chemical, three-quarters of a mile long and 1,000 feet wide, is oozing through the ground from which the city of Aberdeen draws its drinking water.

Both the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment were considering filing emergency orders to the Army in 2002 to force it to install filters and make sure the levels in drinking water didn't rise to dangerous levels, according to internal EPA documents The Sun obtained from a lawsuit filed by an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The EPA's Oct. 4, 2002, draft order to the Army warned: "The levels of perchlorate identified in the city of Aberdeen well may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons who consume such water."

But the Army refused to "spend a nickel" on the cleanup, and the EPA and the Department of the Environment backed down and never issued cleanup orders, according to the documents.

Following the state's advice to be cautious about the possible health hazards, the city of Aberdeen temporarily shut down three wells, installed one filter last year and is putting in two more this spring, at a total cost of $250,000, city officials said.

Some EPA officials are disturbed that the Department of Defense has refused to take responsibility for filtering the chemical from drinking water, nicknaming it the Pentagon's "let 'em drink poison" policy, according to EPA documents.

"The last time I checked, we clean up lots of things we haven't promulgated a regulatory standard for, like lead in soil," an EPA official named Michael Overbay wrote in an Aug. 21, 2002, e-mail to colleagues at the agency. "This sounds like a big stalling tactic to me."

George Mercer, spokesman for the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, did not dispute that the most probable source of the perchlorate in the city's water is runoff from artillery training.

But he said the Army has told the base that it could not pay for cleanup until the EPA defined the health risks of perchlorate and set a national standard for how much was safe to drink.

"You can't just clean it up because it's nice to clean it up," said Mercer. "There has to be some science and standards involved. ... We want to do the right thing. But the Army can't spend money unless there is a health risk that has been identified."

As soon as Aberdeen Proving Ground learned in 2002 that perchlorate was seeping into the city's water supply, its commander banned the use of explosives used to simulate artillery fire during training drills near the city's wells, Mercer said. This was done to prevent more perchlorate from seeping into the groundwater, he said.

"The training hasn't been compromised, but there is a general feeling that the military needs latitude to perform simulations," Mercer said.

EPA officials have suggested that 1 part per billion might be a possible safe limit for perchlorate in water, while the Pentagon has said that up to 200 parts per billion might be fine.

The National Academy of Sciences on Jan. 10 released a report saying that perchlorate might be safe in doses about 20 times the level the EPA used to create its 1 part per billion proposed guideline. The EPA has yet to set a national standard for perchlorate.

David Sternberg, spokesman for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region office in Philadelphia, said nobody in Aberdeen was put at risk by being exposed to perchlorate levels above the lowest contemplated limit, 1 part per billion.

"The important thing is that public health is being protected," Sternberg said.

Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said: "The whole issue here is there is no federal water quality standard for perchlorate."

Aaron Colangelo, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Army "should absolutely pick up the tab" for the city's three new water filters. "There shouldn't be any rocket fuel in people's water."

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