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Base loses key figures in cleanup program

For the past decade, environmental engineer Jim Gebhardt and his boss, Paul Robert, have been Fort Meade's go-to guys in the sticky matter of cleaning up one of the nation's most contaminated military sites.

To the Army brass, they were the civilians who could translate into plain English the migration of chlorinated solvents. To the civilians outside the base, they were the Army representatives who always told the often-ugly truth. To the regulators monitoring the cleanup, they were the shortest cut through red tape.

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By early next month, though, Gebhardt and Robert will be gone from the Anne Arundel County base.

Gebhardt, who started his Army job in 1994, is moving to Idaho, where he will help manage the Idaho Panhandle National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service.

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Robert, who built the base's cleanup program when he arrived 14 years ago and now is head of the environmental office, will become an environmental engineer at NASA's headquarters. The Army has not announced a replacement for either of them.

In some ways, they're an unlikely pair. Robert, a seasoned government worker at 46, is more behind-the-scenes manager who says "let me just say this" before making a point.

Gebhardt, 33, relishes the roll-up-your-sleeves approach, and has been the office's public face. An avid hunter, he recently transported a buck through Fort Meade's checkpoint, saying he had no time to deposit it at his Sykesville home before a night meeting.

"Jim did the hard work, out in the sun. I just showed up," said Robert, of Edgewater.

News of the departures has stung members of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of regulators and Odenton residents who oversee the base's cleanup.

"The public is at a huge disadvantage without them," said the group's chairwoman, Zoe Draughon, a Seven Oaks resident. "Now, we start the learning curve all over again."

Since 1994, that curve has looked more like a roller-coaster as contamination turned up in unlikely spots on the 86-year-old base and regulators and Army officials clashed about how best to notify the public and clean up the mess.

Contaminated sites

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Harrowing points include an 1995 atrazine scare, in which health officials discovered the weed killer in the wells of eight Odenton homes and blamed the contamination on the base's active sanitary landfill, although investigators later determined the landfill wasn't the source.

There was also the 1997 discovery of 200 buried oil drums at the post's southern end, a surprise that earned the Army a $75,000 fine from the Environmental Protection Agency and a spot on the EPA's Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites.

This spring, Gebhardt and Robert encountered a 60- year-old dump that extended onto Manor View Elementary School's playground. The Army is assessing how to clean it up, although investigators have said the waste isn't hazardous and that the pupils are at no immediate risk. Still, Gebhardt wasted no time in testing the ground, even supervising drilling during Easter weekend.

Finding a dump on a county-run school in a neighborhood "raises the stakes," Gebhardt said. "It makes it so much more important."

Former Fort Meade public affairs officer Cynthia Lyles-Quinn, long impressed with Gebhardt's ability to simplify alphabet-soup terms, marveled at how he calmed Manor View teachers' fears when the two briefed educators at a school meeting a few weeks ago.

"He told them what we were going to do and when," she said. "And then he made it happen, quickly."

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Record-setting efforts

Gebhardt and Robert, along with the Restoration Advisory Board, hold the EPA's record for the fastest Superfund delisting: They pushed Tipton Airfield into Anne Arundel County's hands in less than two years.

Although the number of potentially hazardous sites documented on the base has grown from six in 1994 to about 200 today, regulators now say only 30 of those sites will require further cleanup, mostly for chlorinated solvent contamination. That work, plus their Tipton triumph, won Fort Meade the Army Environmental Award in 2000.

Winning praise

John Fairbank, the Maryland Department of the Environment's division chief for federal Superfund sites, calls Robert a "prime mover" in converting Tipton into a viable general aviation airport.

"We would have had no money for the cleanup if it hadn't been for the Meade environmental staff pushing the paperwork through the Army channels," Fairbank said.

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Others remember Robert for pushing the Army to buy bottled water for all atrazine-affected residents until the county converted their homes to public water, easing tension between the base and its neighbors.

"It could have been a black eye for Fort Meade, but it wasn't," said Col. Bert Rice, who represented Odenton on the County Council during the atrazine scare.

Gebhardt came to Fort Meade in 1994, one year after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with an engineering degree. He came to the Restoration Advisory Board as a note-taker; Draughon thought the fresh-scrubbed engineer was an intern. Quickly, though, he earned her trust and pushed the regulators and the Army officials to stop pointing fingers.

"He was the engineer. He could answer the questions. We looked to him because he was the one working the issue, and he was honest," she said. "He understood that if we had the information, even if it wasn't wonderful information, that we could get it out to the community. He made this process open, because he forced it open sometimes."

Environmental contractors have noticed his abilities, too.

"I've worked on a lot of military projects over the past 12 years, and I've never seen a guy who can get things done as quickly as he can," said Fort Meade contractor Mike Bruzzesi.

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Gebhardt has strong connections to the U.S. Forest Service. He worked for the agency his first year out of college, his father spent his career with it in New Hampshire, and his brother is a Forest Service biologist in Idaho. Robert's departure is more of a surprise, but he says it's a coincidence that the NASA opportunity came just as Gebhardt was leaving.

The joke in the environmental office is that engineers are there to work until they're out of a job -- until the cleanup is done. But Gebhardt and Robert know much is left to do.

"You always have sites you have an attachment to," Gebhardt said. "But it's being left in good hands."

Robert agreed. "The system is still there. I'm confident that the Army will bring in someone who's equally capable. Or better."


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