Md. warns Army of suit

State presses for deadline on Fort Meade pollution cleanup

August 20, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler notified the Army yesterday that the state plans to sue to get it to finish cleaning up groundwater and soil contamination at Fort Meade.

Ratcheting up a long-running dispute, Gansler sent the Army a notice of the state's intent to sue under federal pollution law, accusing the military of failing to comply with a year-old cleanup order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Army has been working for years, under supervision by the EPA and the state, to find and clean up pollution at the 5,400-acre base in Anne Arundel County stemming from past careless disposal of fuel and munitions.

But last August, the EPA ordered the Army to enter into a legally binding timetable for dealing with the contamination, with fines for missing deadlines.

Maryland Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson said yesterday that the state is threatening legal action in an effort to force the Army to agree to the cleanup schedule. While the Army's cleanup progress to date has been "adequate," she said, Pentagon officials have balked at agreeing to an enforceable remediation plan.

"They say they fully intend to comply but are unable to make a time commitment," Wilson said. "So we issued this notice to prompt them to do what they say they're going to do more quickly."

An Army spokesman said officials have no comment on the state's threatened lawsuit. "However, the U.S. Army remains fully committed to protecting the health and safety of those living and working both on Fort Meade and in the surrounding communities," the spokesman, Dave Foster, said in a written statement.

Earlier this summer, when the dispute over the Fort Meade cleanup schedule erupted, Pentagon officials said the Army had spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up contamination there and planned to continue the effort. They complained that the EPA order exaggerated the seriousness of the pollution problem.

A spokeswoman for Gansler said state officials notified the EPA of their planned action. An EPA official, speaking on background, said the agency could not join the state lawsuit against the federal government to enforce the cleanup order because it would be tantamount to suing itself.

Fort Meade, established as an Army base during World War I, has been on the EPA's Superfund list since 1998 because of a variety of pollutants found there, including cleaning solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, waste fuels and other hazardous chemicals.

More recent studies have found groundwater contamination from arsenic and perchlorate, a chemical in explosives.

Wilson said the contamination at Fort Meade does not pose an immediate threat to people's health. But the state wants a binding pledge from the Army to remove its potential to harm anyone in the future.

"Groundwater pollution at the Fort Meade site has been a problem for many years," Gansler said in a statement announcing the legal action. "The Army was ordered to clean up this site and has failed to complete their mission. We cannot stand by any longer while this pollution threatens Maryland's citizens and environment."

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold welcomed the state's legal action. He wrote Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earlier this summer complaining about the Army's unwillingness to comply with the EPA cleanup order.

"Given our unfortunate history of groundwater contamination - groundwater containing these dangerous carcinogens - it's imperative that the Department of Defense expeditiously follow the standard set by EPA and clean this material up," Leopold said.

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