Meade cleanup making progress; EPA added Army post to priority list in 1998, calling it one of worst


When the Environmental Protection Agency added Fort Meade to its National Priorities List last summer -- branding the post one of the nation's worst environmental sites and singling it out for special federal help -- many area residents had hoped the distinction would mean a faster cleanup.

The military had long been criticized for delays in the cleanup, but purging the 5,415-acre Superfund site of dangerous toxins continues to be a deliberate rather than speedy procedure.

EPA officials have only begun to tackle those problems on the site identified as the most significant, to analyze solutions Army environmentalists have suggested and to figure out where else to dig for dirty soil.

While the Army has dug up World War I shells, sampled ground water, shoveled out contaminated soil and dug monitoring wells around questionable sites, more than 200 parcels throughout the post still are pinpointed as potential threats to people and the environment.

"The sites that are gathering our interest are the ones that have the most potential risk," said Nicholas J. Di Nardo, EPA site manager in charge of organizing the cleanup. "The higher the risk, the faster we'll get to it. When you have this gigantic forest that's on fire, wherever you can, you start putting out the hottest fires first."

Heavily ablaze in the minds of EPA officials were the three areas they used last year to justify adding the base to the Superfund list: a laundry; a landfill known as the clean-fill dump on a parcel transferred to the Department of the Interior; and the Defense Reutilization and Management Office, where 267 drums seeping contaminants, such as oil, were found buried in 1995.

Now that some of the more pressing areas are being handled, environmentalists are turning their attention to the next group of big problems.

"People should not be comfortable," said Zoe Draughon, a community activist and co-chairwoman of the Army's Restoration Advisory Board. "There is still a lot of stuff to look at and a lot of stuff to pay attention to. There's still a lot of stuff we don't know about. We have to look at everything else."

Because the Army's Environmental Management Office had been working for about a decade cleaning the widespread contaminated areas, much of the required soil and water sampling, investigation and analysis of the hot spots was done.

Last September, two months after EPA took over the cleanup, the Army was presenting the agency with documents for the laundry and the clean-fill dump, seeking approval.

"The work, to date, has proceeded at a fairly quick pace," Di Nardo said. "Certainly the precedence Tipton [Airport] has set has carried over and accelerated progress at many of the other sites we're looking at."

Cleaning up Tipton Airport was also high on the EPA priority list because the Army was supposed to have transferred the property to Anne Arundel County 11 years ago to be converted into a general aviation airport.

The transfer has been repeatedly put off while the Army has mopped up a fire training area where firefighters practiced dousing blazes in a concrete pit, a helicopter hangar and three landfills on the site.

The EPA has told the Army that the airport site is clean and is trying to remove the 366-acre parcel from the National Priorities List. One of the final reports needed to transfer the property to the county is open for public comment through Sept. 23.

EPA officials should issue a notice next weekend recommending that Tipton be removed from the list, which would clear the way for a county takeover as early as the end of next month, officials say.

But work on the rest of the post has not moved as quickly.

EPA officials have asked for more ground and soil testing at the laundry after reviewing what the Army came up with because there wasn't enough information to say whether more cleanup was needed, Di Nardo said.

Problems at the clean-fill dump were easy to spot -- refrigerators, washing machines, tires and a Volkswagen dumped on top of a legal landfill that had been closed.

The Army removed the junk, and officials are working on a report that will say whether contamination remains.

The Defense Reutilization and Management Office site, north of Route 32, has been excavated and the contaminated soil surrounding the seeping drums thrown out. This summer, the Army dug wells to monitor ground water contamination and began figuring out what contaminants remained. The detailed list of toxins is due out by the end of the year.

Other hot spots are:

An ordnance demolition area on Department of the Interior property, where the Army placed World War I and II shells found on the post. The shells were placed between two towering mounds of dirt and exploded safely.

Army environmentalists are working on a report that will track what contamination remains.

The former Walter Reed Medical Center Farm where Army scientists did experiments on laboratory animals. Bottles and jars containing blood and unidentified liquids were on the ground near wetlands, along with fragments of rusted and corroded medical utensils buried underneath.

Sampling showed that officials did not have to worry about contaminants in the area. The Army is writing a report that will detail how the site will be monitored.

Aside from those areas, 200 to 250 other places around Fort Meade must be investigated. But officials said those sites -- including the Little Patuxent River that runs along the border of the post and Route 32 -- are lesser immediate potential hazards.

An unknown amount of unexploded ordnance has never been cleaned from the river. The EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment asked the Army for soil samples from around the river more than a year ago, but the requests have been pushed aside as the Army scrambled to finish paperwork on Tipton Airport.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad