Tipton soon to be removed from EPA's Superfund list; Transfer of airport to Arundel anticipated

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to Tipton Airport, Sam Minnitte doesn't want to talk dates anymore.

"A lot of folks I work with always tease me about how long it's taken Tipton to come together," said Minnitte, who for five years has been at the forefront of Anne Arundel County's push to turn a former Fort Meade landfill and Army airfield into a general aviation airport.

Minnitte, assistant to the county executive and former airport project manager, has made numerous predictions that the 346-acre site would be transferred to the county within months. This time, it appears, he is on course.

Tipton Airport has been licensed to operate since Oct. 1, and dozens of pilots have been flying in to check out the renovated facilities on land that is leased -- but not owned -- by the county.

Years of clearing, testing

After 11 years of testing soil and ground water for contamination from munitions training, refuse disposal, firefighter training and helicopter maintenance, Tipton has passed muster and is about to be removed from the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list, clearing the way for the transfer of ownership.

The long process included finding, digging up and detonating thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance.

Tipton, along with the rest of Fort Meade, was added last year to the EPA's list of the nation's worst environmental sites. By then, the airfield cleanup was nearly complete.

Last Monday marked the end of a 30-day period for public comment on the EPA's plan to carve the airfield from the rest of Fort Meade and remove it from the list. EPA officials expect to publish the deletion notice in the Federal Register early next month.

That step will complete the site's metamorphosis from a training ground for soldiers and firefighters to what county officials hope will be a popular base for local pilots.

County, state and federal officials are planning a ceremony to mark Tipton's removal from the EPA list Monday.

"There is a lot of excitement," Minnitte said.

Tipton Army Airfield was built in 1960. Fort Meade soldiers trained with small arms and rockets on portions of the land from the 1930s through the early 1950s. The exercises left tons of unexploded shells in the ground.

In the 1950s, portions of the site that was to become an airfield were used as landfill. The runway was built over one of them, and the airfield became home to about 80 aircraft, ranging from two-seater Cessna 150s to Boeing Vertol CH-47 "Chinook" cargo helicopters.

Army firefighters used part of the land for firefighting exercises from the 1960s to 1988, when Congress ordered the Army to get rid of more than 8,100 acres on the post's southern side under the Congressional Base Realignment and Closure Act. Tipton was part of the divestiture.

Then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed turning the property into a prison boot camp. But in 1993, officials in Howard and Anne Arundel counties embraced the idea of an airport, which they said would benefit taxpayers.

The Army closed the airport in 1995 and sent contractors to sweep the land with magnetometers for buried explosives -- such as hand grenades, mortar shells and antitank rockets -- and mark the dangerous spots with yellow flags. They found and detonated 3,000 pieces of ammunition before the job was declared complete more than a year later.

Environmental workers also sampled soil and ground water throughout the property and found high levels of volatile organic compounds, residue from high explosives and heavy metals, EPA officials said.

In 1997, Howard County officials backed out of the plan to form a two-county airport authority and maintain joint ownership of the property, leaving Anne Arundel to go it alone.

Last year, when the cleanup seemed to be all but complete and county officials were about to take ownership, four other parcels on the Army post were found to be high enough in soil and ground water contamination to put Fort Meade on the EPA cleanup list.

By that time, the county had spent about $300,000 on the airport, mostly on consultants and a manager's salary. The total now is about $400,000, including the cost of an extensive weed-cutting.

EPA agreed to allow the county to lease the land so work could begin on repairing cracks in the runway blacktop and renovating the operations building and hangars. The latter were thought to contain asbestos.

Airport work remains

On a recent aerial tour of the field just south of Fort Meade's Route 32 boundary, the bright yellow and white of the freshly painted runway stood out, along with the patches filling the cracks.

The lighting system to guide planes for night landings needs work. Situated in the field surrounding the 3,000-foot runway and taxiway, the lights were "mangled pretty well when they were digging up the unexploded ordnance," said Michael Wassel, who was named airport manager last month.

Repainted airplane tie-downs, a repaired beacon, a ground-to-air radio and a new windsock were taken care of by the Maryland Aviation Authority.

Though the hangars are considered one of the property's greatest assets, improvements to them are far from complete. The goal is to set up fueling operations and lighting so that pilots can begin renting space and fly in during the evening.

Expectations for the airport, 10 miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, are high.

County officials said in 1995 that they expected the airport to generate as much as $25 million annually after several years, with about 300 airplanes based there and as many as 188,000 takeoffs and landings each year.

Wassel has scaled back those figures, but the business plan for the county government's Tipton Airport Authority projects that the airport will become self-sufficient after two or three years, and will gross $1.2 million by fiscal year 2004.

"This is a ready-made facility," Wassel said. "This is a prime market in a lot of ways. We have three major commercial airports in this general area. Aviation is big here."

Although it appears certain the EPA will take the airfield off the cleanup list, the Army and state and federal environmental agencies will continue to monitor ground water until contaminant levels are low enough to allow unrestricted use of the property.

Any significant contamination or risk posed by the land could cause its return to Superfund status, EPA officials said. But county officials say that's a risk they're willing to take.

"The EPA has spent five years looking at that property, and they've made an educated guess," Minnitte said. "I'm confident that the probability is low."

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