The private company overhauling military housing at Fort Meade halted construction in a small area of the project Friday when workers discovered what appears to be a trash dump from the 1940s.
Workers with the Picerne Real Estate Group - the Rhode Island company that broke ground on the $3 billion project last month - discovered debris in a half-acre, wooded area east of Fort Meade's golf course last week. Base officials, who toured the site Friday for the first time, said the area is filled with old soda, milk and after-shave bottles, glass and pottery shards, and other household trash.
Picerne has fenced off the area so environmental regulators can examine the site for possible contamination.
"They have to find out what it is, how large it is and what needs to be done," said Fort Meade spokeswoman Cynthia Lyles-Quinn. "It's another case of 'it was buried and we were unaware it was buried.'"
It's not the first time construction workers have dug up a problem on the base. In 1995, while building a warehouse at the old Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, workers uncovered 267 buried drums of oil and solvents that had leaked into the soil and ground water. The finding led to the base being named to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites.
But Fort Meade environmental chief Paul Robert said the initial investigation of the newly uncovered garbage site shows no sign of hazardous waste or ground water contamination.
"We're still concerned, but the level of concern is commensurate with the information you know at the time," Robert said. "This means that this site is going to move to the top of our priority list. We may end up removing what's there."
In May, the Army transferred management of about 2,500 homes on the post to Picerne, and signed a 50-year lease with the company. During the next 10 years, Picerne will build and manage base homes, part of a national privatization effort.
The company is continuing to build near the golf course while officials investigate the site.
But Zoe Draughon, Restoration Advisory Board's chairwoman, is less than confident that the dump is benign. She called the finding "everything we were afraid of."
Draughon, whose group of residents and regulators oversees the cleanup efforts, battled with Picerne and base officials during the summer, when key environmental studies were turned over to regulators late and in some cases incomplete.
Though Army and Picerne officials said the company had completed soil testing on the housing parcel, several base environmental officials said the studies were never done.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Army's Office of Information Management said no soil, water, radon or lead samples were maintained in their files. Had they conducted the studies, Draughon said, Picerne might have discovered the garbage dump before construction began.
"This is a Superfund site," she said, "and until it's clean, there is a risk in anything they do."