Members of the Howard County Council asked last night for a legal opinion regarding the county's liability once it joins Anne Arundel County in operating Tipton Airfield at Fort Meade as a civilian facility.
The problem is not what Howard and Anne Arundel plan to put on the site once they begin managing the airport, but what the Army may have left there.
"Given the Army's history with unexploded bombs from World War II, I am concerned about future liability," Councilman C. Vernon Gray, 2nd District Democrat, said.
There are three landfills on the 366-acre Tipton Airfield site, and munitions from as far back as World War I are believed to buried there. Hand grenades, mortars and anti-tank rockets already have been removed and detonated.
Plans call for the Army to clean up the site and eventually turn the airfield over to an airport authority run jointly by Howard and Anne Arundel. Meanwhile, the two counties plan to enter into a lease agreement with the Army and begin operating the airfield as a civilian facility this fall.
On Monday, the Howard County Council plans to vote on an interim agreement under which the two counties would operate the airfield until the authority is created. Before doing so, however, council members want a legal opinion from their attorney, advising them that they can count on assurances given them in a public hearing last week.
At the hearing, Sam Minnitte, the airport project manager for Anne Arundel, said the Army would be liable "in perpetuity" for damages or injuries occurring as a result of hazardous or toxic wastes left at the site.
But when council members pressed Howard County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. for similar assurances at a work session on the agreement last night, he demurred. "Once you are in the chain of title, you are in the chain of liability," Mr. Rutter said. "There is no way of saying we won't have any liability."
What council members can feel comfortable about, Mr. Rutter said, is that the Army has pledged to clean up the site before giving it to the counties and has agreed to allow an independent consultant to verify that the site is free of contaminants.
Nonetheless, "our level of comfort would be higher if we had some documentation," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, 4th District Democrat.
"Would you like something from Barbara [Cook]," the Howard County solicitor? Mr. Rutter asked.
Council members said they would, and Mr. Rutter promised to have it for them before Monday night's vote when they are expected to approve the agreement regardless.
Once it becomes a civilian airfield, Tipton is expected eventually to house 300 planes and generate $25 million in annual revenue.