State opposes proposed health survey of 3 counties around proving ground


The Maryland Department of the Environment is resisting a proposed health survey of residents in three counties around Aberdeen Proving Ground, which has widespread chemical contamination.

In a letter last week to a Joppa-based citizens group that wants the study, Richard W. Collins, director of the department's waste management administration, said the agency "does not support the . . . proposal for an independent health survey at this time."

Mr. Collins wrote that the Army, with state and federal oversight, "is more than three years into a risk assessment of environmental contamination. . . . While the data is not yet conclusive, no information has been developed to date to suggest the need for the type of study your group is proposing."

The survey, demanded by the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, would involve interviews with physicians in the region, searches of medical databases and the distribution of questionnaires to residents in Baltimore, Harford and Kent counties.

Mr. Collins said yesterday that such a survey, possibly involving thousands of residents, is too big. "I'm not so sure you are going to get anything beneficial out of it," he said. "I'm not so sure that's a good use of money right now."

The citizens group says the study is needed because chemical contamination may be moving beyond the proving ground's borders. The survey would include base workers.

Members of the group also say they are responding to anecdotal information about diseased fish caught around the proving ground and fears that cancers, other diseases and even cases of attention deficit disorder among children could be related to the contamination.

The health survey is backed by toxicologists with the University of Maryland.

The Army plans to spend more than $90 million this fiscal year on environmental cleanup at Aberdeen, the most at any Army installation nationwide. The citizens group wants the Army to put up about $500,000 for the health survey. There would be no cost to the state.

"What we are asking for is less than 1 percent of what they are going to spend this year on cleanup," said Rena Steinzor, director of UM's Environmental Law Clinic in Baltimore, which assists the citizens group.

Waste removal and remedying the problems at the 72,000-acre proving ground is expected to cost about $1 billion over the next 15 years. The dump sites, some containing lethal chemical warfare agents, were created between World War I and the 1970s.

"I'm very disappointed in the Maryland Department of the Environment for not working with the citizens," said Helen Richick, the group's executive director.

"They are not taking us seriously," she said. "The Army is being more responsive to us."

Mrs. Richick and others supporting the survey say they are puzzled by the department's position, since an agency toxicologist recommended in 1992 that the Army study the health of proving ground workers.

About 15,000 military personnel and civilians work at the weapons-testing and research installation northeast of Baltimore. Nearly 300,000 people live within 15 miles of the base, which borders the Chesapeake Bay.

Army officials said recently that although they have concerns about the design of a health survey, they have talked to the Army surgeon general to help determine the validity of such an effort.

"At this stage, the Army certainly is not against the survey," said George Mercer, an Army spokesman for the proving ground.

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