Study faults management of APG waste Investigation cites potential for violations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Aberdeen Proving Ground's environmental program i seriously understaffed and has been bogged down by poor management and internal strife, raising "immense concern" about compliance with environmental laws, a three-month investigation concludes.

The findings, contained in more than 500 pages of documents obtained by The Sun under the federal Freedom of Information Act, come four years after the criminal convictions of top managers at the Army post on felony charges of mishandling hazardous waste.

"Serious environmental violations will occur" if more inspectors, engineers and scientists are not hired in the environmental office, concluded Col. Nicholas Barron, the investigating officer RTC and a top aide to the proving ground's commander.

"This is of immense concern," Colonel Barron wrote in a 13-page summary of his findings.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, is scheduled to discuss the findings of the investigation publicly for the first time tomorrow, at a monthly update on environmental issues at the Harford County weapons-testing and research installation.

The investigation's findings notwithstanding, he said the effort to clean up old dump sites and avoid new environmental damage at the 72,000-acre installation is "fundamentally sound."

Among the other findings in the documents:

* Maryland Department of the Environment inspections, including one in the last two weeks, have revealed serious

violations of sediment- and erosion-control laws at nearly every visit to the huge "Superpond" test facility. Last July, the threat of civil fines from the state prompted an Army environmental official to write in a memo that he was "tired of begging for compliance" at Superpond, which has been under construction since February 1992.

The 150-foot-deep, $22 million pond for underwater test explosions is being built by the Army's Combat Systems Test Activity on the banks of the Bush River. In a March 10 memo, General Tragemann told the commander of the test unit to "shift the focus of your organization's thinking."

* A year's supply of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used to maintain the installation's golf course had been "haphazardly and randomly jammed" into a warehouse without regard to the potential for serious injury that could result from a fire or spill. Some of the hazardous substances were 20 or more years old. No inventory of the chemicals had been made as of last summer, and medical and fire personnel had not been informed of the potential hazards of a spill or fire at the warehouse, as required.

A proving ground spokesman said last week that the deficiencies have since been corrected.

* The November 1991 discovery of a container of deadly nerve agent in a laboratory for chemical warfare research that had been closed five years earlier became a source of strained relations between proving ground environmental inspectors and the managers of the research unit, called the Chemical and Biological Defense Agency.

The discovery of the nerve agent and other waste, first reported in The Sun last March, was not promptly reported to state and federal authorities, even though the laboratory, called the Pilot Plant, was the focus of the 1989 criminal trial of three top managers in the chemical warfare research program.

"The ultimate irony of that incident is that instead of an investigation to determine the cause of the lack of accountability for such a large quantity of abandoned and unsecured [nerve agent], a committee was formed to iron out personality difficulties," Michael F. Flannery Jr., the former chief of the proving ground's environmental office, wrote in a Dec. 18, 1992, memo to General Tragemann.

Mr. Flannery's scathing eight-page memo prompted the general to order the investigation. In the memo, Mr. Flannery alleged a "continuation of the same mismanagement which ultimately resulted in the Pilot Plant convictions," and he said he was being threatened with removal for raising "controversial" environmental concerns.

The Pilot Plant trial, which received national attention, was regarded as one of the Justice Department's most important environmental prosecutions because it meant individual federal employees could be held criminally responsible for violations. The felony convictions of the three managers, all of whom received probation, was a warning to the Pentagon and every military installation in the country.

Mr. Flannery was relieved of his duties last February and now holds a staff position in another environmental office at the proving ground. The recently concluded investigation found that Flannery "failed to manage and failed to lead."

During an interview last week, General Tragemann said Mr. Flannery's removal "was not prompted by any sort of whistle-blowing but his inability to do the job."

The investigation ordered by the general is one of three such probes begun this year.

Findings of the other two probes, by the Army inspector general at the Pentagon and a Denver-based enforcement arm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have not been released.

Violations in the handling of chemical waste resulted in a $5,000 state fine against the proving ground in March. The action was the first state environmental fine against an Army installation in the country, and one of the first such penalties authorized by a law Congress enacted last year.

In addition, the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore has been reviewing the proving ground's environmental compliance record since early this year, according to sources.

FBI agents have recently been interviewing proving ground officials in response to allegations of environmental violations, said Andrew S. Manning, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore.

"There is an ongoing investigation," Mr. Manning said, adding that the probe remains preliminary. He said no determination had been made as to whether the alleged violations could be considered criminal.

Although Mr. Manning would not cite the source or the nature of the allegations, other investigations have focused on the management of hazardous waste and the cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks containing petroleum products, among other things.

In response to the recently completed Army investigation, General Tragemann said he is seeking funding to boost the proving ground's environmental staff to 51 this year, as compared with the current staff of 38.

That is especially important, he said, because federal tax dollars allocated each year for the proving ground's environmental cleanup and compliance effort are expected to nearly double -- to about $100 million -- in the next fiscal year.

The general said he is trying to relieve the environmental staff of burdensome duties that can be handled by other offices.

Strained relations between proving ground environmental inspectors and military commanders have improved in recent months, the general said, adding, "We are in the midst of a healing process."

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