Proving ground's neighbors seek health study


Residents near Aberdeen Proving Ground are calling on elected officials to support them in their demand that the Army pay for an independent health survey in three counties around the 72,000-acre installation.

The Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, a year-old group created to increase public input in the extensive environmental cleanup of the installation, is to meet tonight with political and community leaders to organize support for the survey.

The meeting is to begin at 7 p.m. at Towne Baptist Church, at Joppa and Trimble roads in Joppa.

"How we feel about the health of our community is of the utmost importance," said Helen Richick, the coalition's executive director. "The bottom line is, we are a community at risk."

The proving ground, a weapons-testing and research installation, is conducting one of the most complicated and expensive environmental cleanups at any military base in the country. The work, expected to cost about $1 billion over the next 15 years, involves cleaning up dozens of dump sites that were created between World War I and the 1970s.

Mrs. Richick and other coalition representatives say that a well-designed health study is the best way to respond to persistent questions about whether extensive chemical contamination on the proving ground has harmed or could harm residents of Baltimore, Harford and Kent counties. The citizens say such a study should involve some of the 15,000 workers at the proving ground.

The coalition says a survey should involve consultations with physicians in the region, searches of medical data bases and distribution of questionnaires to residents.

Mrs. Richick said her group, along with Thomas M. Thomas, the Harford County health officer, has begun gathering data on cancer and other illnesses in the region. The group also says it is organizing a panel of technical advisers that includes toxicologists and medical professionals.

Some Army officials say they are concerned that a health survey could easily become too broad, and that the Army could be blamed for any illnesses that may be discovered.

Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman, said it would be inappropriate "to go out and say, 'Let's do a once-over the world and see what we find.' We need to narrow the beam."

"I understand their concerns about study design," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic in Baltimore, which is advising the coalition.

Despite the Army's concerns, proving ground officials have asked the Army surgeon general for an opinion "on the need for and scientific validity of a public health survey" in communities around the installation.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, is organizing a meeting of representatives of the coalition, the Army, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies.

"We are asking them to sit down with the citizens," said Michael Morrill, an aide to the senator. "We do believe there are valid reasons for health studies. If a health survey is designed well, then I think it's appropriate."

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