A new round of water samples taken at Fort Detrick in Frederick indicates that toxic chemicals buried there decades ago are contaminating ground water on the Army post and reaching the wells of nearby homeowners.
Unsafe levels of trichloroethylene, a common industrial solvent suspected of causing cancer, were detected in six of 17 monitoring wells at Fort Detrick that were sampled last fall by the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency. The highest reading was 110 parts per billion -- 22 times the level deemed safe in drinking water (5 parts).
Several wells also contained unsafe levels of lead, which can damage the nervous system, and of perchloroethylene, another cleaning solvent suspected of causing cancer, according to the Army agency's report, which was released this week by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The test wells picked up traces of about a dozen other toxic metals and compounds in the ground water of Fort Detrick's Area B, a 400-acre tract where biological, chemical and radioactive wastes were buried more than 20 years ago.
The wells sampled do not supply drinking water, but were drilled by the Army to monitor ground water contamination.
Unsafe levels of trichloroethylene were found last fall in four homeowners' wells and a spring just southeast of Area B.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a widely used de-greasing agent that has caused liver cancer in laboratory animals.
Fort Detrick houses the Army's research center for biological warfare defense, as well as civilian laboratories studying cancer and crop diseases. From World War II until the late 1960s, biological and chemical weapons were developed and tested there. Michael Sullivan, a state spokesman, said the report shows "nothing alarming," though the TCE levels detected are the highest since the Army and state began investigating off-post well contamination last year.
Most of the other contaminants detected in Detrick's ground water were well within safe drinking-water limits, Mr. Sullivan said.
Among them were chloroform and phenol, two laboratory
chemicals; Freon, another refrigerant; and pentachlorophenol, a herbicide commonly used in wood treatment.
"There's nothing that would indicate there's a problem more serious or more immediate than the TCE," the state spokesman said.
The sampling did not pick up any of the many herbicides, including the defoliant Agent Orange, that were buried or poured out in open pits around Area B in 1970 and 1971.
But Michael E. Burns, a private environmental consultant who lives near Detrick, charged that the Army has been trying to downplay the scope and severity of the post's hazardous-waste problems, and that the state has not been tough enough on the military.
"Clearly, [the report] shows Fort Detrick is the source of the well contamination," Mr. Burns said. The other toxic metals and chemicals found suggest that "they've got bigger problems than they've been pretending," he added.
Army officials acknowledge that the post may contribute to ground water contamination off-post, but they argue that other sources of pollution may exist.
State inspectors have failed so far to find any.
"When the science shows that Fort Detrick is the source of contamination off-post, then the Army will do what we have to do," said Norman Covert, the post's spokesman.
Army and state officials are scheduled to explain their plans for investigating ground water contamination to nearby residents at p.m. today at Frederick High School.
The Army has budgeted $500,000 this year to find the source and extent of toxic chemicals in the soil and ground water at Fort Detrick, and to begin any necessary cleanup, said Elizabeth Sergeant, a spokeswoman for the Army Environmental Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is overseeing the project.
Earlier this month, Army engineers using metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar looked for clues to where hazardous wastes were buried at Detrick more than 20 years ago, when the Army shut down its laboratories.
Carroll Creek, a tributary of the Monocacy River which flows through Area B, and several nearby ponds and springs are to be tested for toxic pollution in mid-March, said Ms. Sergeant.
And more sampling will be done of ground water and of gases in the soil, which may indicate the presence of toxic chemicals.
The search so far has focused on a 20-foot long trench known as the "acid pit" in the southwest corner of Area B. Mr. Covert said that Army officials believe that chemicals, acids and solvents were buried or poured out there.
Eight 55-gallon drums of TCE, used as a refrigerant in one of Detrick's laboratories, were buried in Area B in 1968, according to one report.
But the "acid pit" was just one of more than 20 sites in Area B where hazardous wastes may have been buried.
Mr. Burns said that a comprehensive search for ground water contamination on and around Fort Detrick has never been done, despite the recommendations of several prior studies.
The Army is "putting the cart before the horse," Mr. Burns said. He questioned why the state had not locked the Army into a timetable for investigating the problem and cleaning it up.
The Army is more than six weeks late in producing a blueprint for its investigation of ground water contamination.
In November, state regulators gave the Army until Jan. 1 to submit an "action plan" outlining what studies it would do and when.
The Army now plans to hire an independent consultant late next month to write that plan, said Ms. Sergeant.
State officials say they are not troubled by the Army's failure so far to produce a plan.
Detrick is doing everything the state has asked it to, said Richard W. Collins, the state's waste-management director.
In November, state officials were considering asking the Army to sign a legally enforceable "consent agreement" on cleaning up Detrick, but Mr. Collins said he did not think one was needed right now.
"I'm going to push them just like I would any private facility," Mr. Collins said.