Pentagon, EPA at odds

Military refuses to sign agreement on cleanups at Fort Detrick and Fort Meade

July 01, 2008|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

The Pentagon and the Environmental Protection Agency are mired in a dispute over the pace of environmental cleanups at Maryland's Fort Meade and Fort Detrick, where contamination from fuels and munitions for years seeped into soil and groundwater.

The Pentagon says that it has spent more than $120 million cleaning up Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Fort Detrick in Frederick County and that it plans to spend tens of millions more on the efforts.

But defense officials have refused to sign an EPA order setting a more aggressive timetable and establishing fines for missed deadlines.

The dispute has intensified in recent days, with the EPA moving to add Fort Detrick to its Superfund list of the nation's most contaminated sites, a list that includes Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

And late yesterday, Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski called for congressional hearings on the Defense Department's refusal to sign the order.

"DoD is not above the law and is not exempt from EPA regulations," Cardin said in a statement. "This issue affects not only Fort Meade - but the thousands of people living, working, praying and playing on base and in nearby communities."

Pentagon officials said that they are aggressively cleaning up the Maryland military posts and that the EPA's latest order exaggerates the extent of the problem.

"Our cleanup effort has not waned," said Tad Davis, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army, adding that there is no health risk to people on the posts.

"That order is based on the premise that there is an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and human safety, which we believe is completely false. That's the whole purpose of what we've been doing to date, is to make sure that the actions we've taken provide a safe environment to the soldiers, family members and civilians that work on Fort Meade."

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is standing by its original order, issued last August.

"EPA remains committed to continuing its work with all federal agencies to ensure compliance with the nation's cleanup laws," the spokeswoman, Roxanne Smith, said in an e-mail.

One environmental law expert said the Pentagon's stance is indefensible.

"It is, in essence, the polluter defining how the cleanup should be done," said Rena Steinzor, who teaches at the University of Maryland Law School and is president of the nonprofit Center for Progressive Reform.

The EPA would typically sue private employers that refuse to sign cleanup orders. But the EPA would not take such action against the Pentagon, she said, because that would be tantamount to the government suing itself.

The Pentagon's refusal to sign the order and the EPA's move to add Fort Detrick to the Superfund list were reported yesterday by The Washington Post.

Fort Meade has been on the Superfund list since 1998 for numerous contamination sites that include landfills, shooting ranges, ammunition dumps and hundreds of buried drums of petroleum and other pollutants.

The contaminants - such as heavy metals, pesticides, explosives and arsenic - have polluted soil and groundwater, according to EPA reports.

Tests have periodically revealed traces of contaminants in the well water of some families who live near the post.

At stake in the current dispute is the extent to which cleanup efforts at military installations such as Fort Meade and Fort Detrick will be subject to EPA review.

"The EPA is the expert agency charged by Congress with enforcing our environmental laws, and the Administration needs to allow them to do their job to protect the public health and safety," Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in a statement yesterday.

"As the nation's largest polluter, the Defense Department must comply with our toxic waste laws in the same manner as private individuals or companies. In this case we have DOD seeking to self-regulate, contrary to the law and the clear intent of Congress."

Davis said that the Pentagon has signed EPA orders for other sites and that it is open to working out an agreement for Fort Meade, but it disagrees with the agency over specific details, such as the areas to be cleaned up.

Pentagon officials say there is no danger to the drinking water at Fort Detrick and Fort Meade.

Smith, the EPA spokeswoman, was quoted in the Post as saying the order last year was issued because the EPA worried about drinking water and soil contamination at Fort Meade, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. She declined to confirm that statement yesterday.

In August 2007, the EPA issued an order that the Army clean up 17 hazardous-waste sites at Fort Meade and the nearby Patuxent Research Refuge, part of the continuing $100 million cleanup at Fort Meade.

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