Concerned about unexploded artillery shells and liability issues, officials from Anne Arundel and Howard counties will postpone the scheduled Oct. 1 opening of Tipton Airfield at Fort Meade as a civilian airport -- and as many as 300 local pilots will be kept waiting.
"We've waited eight years, what's another six months?" said Jane Gray, vice president of the Howard County Pilots' Association, who learned yesterday that the scheduled opening would be delayed for another six to 18 months.
The Department of Defense in 1988 ordered the Army to give up the airfield as part of a plan to cut military spending. Anne Arundel and Howard counties agreed to lease the 366-acre site from the Army and operate it as an airport while the Army cleaned up environmental hazards. The counties then would become owners of the airport and form a bi-county authority to operate it.
This summer, the Army was to have removed an undetermined number of unexploded shells. County officials went ahead and hired an airport manager.
But local officials wanted to be sure that the Army would take responsibility for environmental problems discovered after the property changed hands. They announced yesterday that the Army had not done enough to clean up potential explosive and environmental hazards at the airfield, a process that could take many more months.
"It's still a great project," said Sam Minnitte, project manager for Anne Arundel County. "We want to pursue it. But we want to do it in a time frame that allows us to do the right thing."
Ted Hartman, coordinator of the Fort Meade base realignment office, said he understood the counties' concerns.
"When you're dealing with environmental issues, you have to be certain," he said.
Mr. Hartman said the Army will maintain the airport -- cut the grass and take care of the runway -- until the counties begin their airport lease.
Of particular concern is an old aircraft hangar known as Hangar 90, which contains asbestos floor tiles and most likely lead-based paint. Environmental Protection Agency officials are concerned about the hangar's drainage system because some of the runoff goes into the Patuxent River, said Drew Lausch, the EPA project manager at Fort Meade.
Officials also are concerned about three landfills at the airfield and about the time and effort necessary to clean up the site.
"We didn't want to get involved in running an airport where there are some unexploded [shells] around," said Gerald Von Mayer, Howard County's project manager for the airport. "We don't know exactly what's there."
The airport at Fort Meade could become one of the busiest airports in Maryland, with as many as 188,000 flights a year and 300 small and commercial airplanes based there, according to a Philadelphia aviation consulting firm hired by both counties.
Mr. Von Mayer said the airfield is a good project for both counties because finding a site for a new airport is so difficult -- a $10 million investment. Baltimore-Washington International Airport has become too busy for small aircraft, he added.