At Patuxent River Naval Air Station, test pilots and future astronauts strut "the right stuff." But the booming air base in St. Mary's County also has the wrong stuff in hazardous waste sites, and it may be seeping into the Chesapeake Bay.
Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nominated the base for the nation's Superfund list because of toxic chemicals buried and spilled from World War II until about 1980 in old landfills, scrap yards and a pesticide shop on the 6,400-acre installation.
Soil and ground water are contaminated with a variety of poisonous metals, cancer-causing chemicals and pesticides, including traces of DDT, which was banned 22 years ago because of concern about its effects on humans and wildlife.
After a 45-day period for public comment, the EPA will decide whether to formally place "Pax River," as the base is known, on the Superfund's "National Priorities List" for hazardous waste cleanup.
That would focus EPA efforts and federal funds on remedying any threats to human health or the environment, the agency said in a statement.
The Navy and EPA have identified 34 hazardous waste sites at the 51-year-old base, which occupies the Cedar Point peninsula at the mouth of the Patuxent River.
"We see some contaminants there that require further long-term cleanup," said Terri White, a spokeswoman in EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia.
Pax River brass quickly launched a public relations counterstrike, issuing their own press release downplaying the significance of EPA's action and inviting reporters to tour the base's cleanup efforts, which have been going on since 1980.
Most of the sites "have undergone or are undergoing restoration and do not pose any threat," said Capt. Roger Hill, the air station's commanding officer. He said that EPA simply has changed the way it decides which hazardous waste sites deserve to be cleaned up under Superfund.
But studies have detected possible low-level toxic pollution in the bay at the mouth of the Patuxent off Cedar Point.
Officials of the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has been overseeing the base's cleanup efforts, have "strong suspicions" that toxic pollutants are reaching the river and the Chesapeake, said Michael Sullivan, a spokesman.
The base's drinking water supply, drawn from deep aquifers, has not been contaminated. But in shallow monitoring wells on the base, a variety of pollutants have been detected, including unsafe levels of lead and vinyl chloride, Mr. Sullivan said.
Some hazardous sites are near the bay and river, though no documented migration of contaminated ground water off the base has occurred so far, he added.
"When they say there's no evidence, it always makes me wonder if they looked for it," said Jacqueline Savitz, a toxicologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She added that she was not surprised that the air base had been targeted by EPA.
Maryland now has nine official Superfund sites, of 1,200 nationwide. The air station and three other Maryland locations have been nominated for addition to the list.
The others are the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research station at Beltsville, where pesticides were tested; Spectron, a troubled hazardous-waste processing firm in Cecil County that was shut by the state; and Ordnace Products Inc., a former munitions plant also in Cecil County.
The Navy has spent about $6 million studying and cleaning up toxic waste at the air station, said Captain Hill. A $1.3 million breakwater was just built to halt shoreline erosion at Fishing Point, which threatened to release toxic solvents, waste oil and paint into the bay from on old 25-acre landfill used from 1960 until 1974.
More than 100 drums were removed under state supervision in 1986 from another old dump on the base, according to information supplied by the Navy. But ground-water sampling last year detected up to 205 parts per billion of trichloroethylene, a potentially cancer-causing solvent. That is more than 40 times EPA's safe drinking water limit of 5 parts per billion.
The base has budgeted another $7.7 million over the next two years to investigate and restore other hazardous-waste sites. One is a a "boneyard," a five-acre former salvage yard used to store waste oil and solvents in drums.
Another site once was used to mix and store weed killers and mosquito sprays and to wash down vehicles. DDT, chlordane and other pesticides leaked into a drainage ditch and to a nearby pond. Traces of DDT have been detected in fish in the pond, though not at levels that are unsafe to eat, according to the Navy.
The toxic-waste cleanups are not expected to affect the base's planned growth, as Navy air-warfare programs from other installations on the East Coast are transferred to Patuxent River, said Joan Hinson, an air station spokeswoman. Nearly $80 million in construction is under way, but none of the building sites is near a toxic dump, she said.
The Navy will continue to be responsible for cleaning up Pax River if the base is put in the Superfund program. But Captain Hill predicted that EPA supervision of the work would delay completion and increase the cost. The Superfund program has been widely criticized as wasteful and painfully slow. Even so, Captain Hill said he did not expect the Navy to contest EPA's move to get more involved, because that might bring more money. Cleaning up all toxic sites found so far could cost more than $20 million, he estimated.